The Biometric Boom

11 Feb 2013

An article in the Guardian today highlights the rise in the use of biometrics in developing countries. The 'Guardian Professional' feature explains how well biometric technologies can help answer questions of "uniqueness (have you already registered to vote?), authenticate transactions (are you the owner of this debit card?) and help create an auditable trail (did you already receive payment this month?)".

Whilst the article mentions the obligatory concerns about privacy control, it also addresses some of the practical issues and realtiies for people relying on this technology to have a valid public identity. This technology implementation is hailed as a way that certain countries can bypass the traditional 'paper-based identity systems'. Importantly however, the article acknowledges that for the most part, these early biometric systems haven't been subject to performance assessments.

The examples of biometric success provided in the article differ greatly from the kinds of contexts that we have been discussing in our focus groups. From the perspective of a developed country, issues of privacy and freedom are mentioned when we present scenarios including odour recognition or iris scanning in the airport. Possibly a hint of 'first world problems'. In contrast, the examples of biometric applications in the article include essential services such as pension allocation, voter registration, and disaster relief.

Other issues raised include multiple identites, and the confusion caused by overlap of identifying tokens such as ID cards. Other more practical problems such as the inability to be assessed biometrically because of limb loss are also mentioned, as well as the reality that no one system will work universally-  that tailor-made systems will benefit different groups.