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Biometric Identification & Homeland Security--Biometrics Pros and Cons

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Biometrics have been the single greatest area of growth in homeland security technology, according to DHS Under Secretary for Science & Technology, Jay Cohen, at a June 2008 Science & Technology conference.

And at this point, there is certainly no going back. But it is not clear to everyone that biometrics are helping society, or security, move forward either. Concerns about effectiveness, privacy and the sheer futuristic creepiness of having our bodies, rather than our conscious volition, speak for us, permeate discussions of biometric identification.

How biometric identification works

Several basic steps are required to make biometric information—our personal physiological features--useful in a contemporary security context. First, our data must be collected as a reference. It does no good to catch a suspected member of a terrorist network and then take her fingerprint.

That fingerprint, or retinal scan, or facial characteristic map must first be on record so that it can be used as a reference when the suspected criminal tries to make it through an airport or cross a country border. Fast computers then use established algorithms to cycle very quickly through their entire collection of references to find a match. If the person crossing the border matches an existing reference at an extremely high threshold, and that reference is for a suspected criminal, then the biometric system has done its job.

Using modern biometrics for identification purposes is not new, nor is it a post-September 11, 2001 phenomenon. Many of the issues raised in the post-attack PATRIOT Act had precursors in a 1996 Counterterrorism bill that would have been signed into law had the ACLU not scuttled it for civil liberties issues.

The technology itself is not newly in use either. As Jerome Rosen pointed out in a 1990 article in Mechanical Engineering, a variety of institutions were already using retinal scanners, including the Pentagon; Dade County, Fla. Detention centers; and a newspaper in Little Rock, Arkansas, that used them to have employees punch in and out.

Current Status

Although biometric identification isn't new, the September 11, 2001 attacks did change people's attitudes toward its use.

First, the event dramatically lowered the general public's resistance to technology previously viewed as invasive. Surprise, fear and shock combined, collectively, to create an atmosphere in which many of us welcomed the idea of more effective security technology. In polls taken after the attacks, Americans overwhelmingly approved of the use of biometric technology in airports and elsewhere to pursue suspected terrorists. This approval is generally tempered by privacy and disclosure concerns (people want to know when biometric identity is being collected). The only exception is in national security situations, when bets—apparently—are off.

Second, biometric identification was given a legislative green light. The Patriot (Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act of 2001, renewed in 2006, mandated that standards for biometric identification be established.

Third, the imperative to create standards and new technologies paved the way for a massive infusion of government funding. Evan Ratliff at Wired, Inc. noted spending projections of $10 billion, in 2005, and that US-VISIT (an immigration data and biometrics system) alone had had $10 billion poured into it.

Stake

These new imperatives, and the money to execute them, accelerated new technological applications. The US has already implemented new technology to have visitors to the United States provide ten fingerprints, instead of two, as they used to (this is part of the US-VISIT process). The State Department has begun to issue electronic passports ("ePassports") with biometric information stored on RFID chips.

But not everyone is convinced that biometric identification will make us more secure. Some think it will make us less secure, which would mean an almost inconceivable expenditure of money and intention will have been misspent. Those on opposing sides of the fence put the differences starkly.

For example, there is some question over whether the RFID chips that new e-passports contain can be hacked by criminals. In 2006, Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that, "The new e-passports provide one-stop shopping for terrorists who want to single out Americans for kidnapping or worse."

Begging to differ, Ann Barrett, then acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Passport Services, said that "It's the most secure passport [the United States] has ever issued. It has the next generation of security features."

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