Is the rise of the digital ID inevitable?

As biometrics gain sway, not everyone sees them as a force for good. Ellen Gibson looks at some very new technology

In baby steps and giant leaps, the world is moving further into digital identification and biometrics. The new technology raises concerns about privacy, of course, as well as opportunities for security companies.

The latest to join the migration: Switzerland. On 17 May, Swiss voters narrowly approved a government plan to switch over to electronic passports, tied to a national fingerprint registry. The new passport will contain a microchip that stores personal data, a digital photo, and two fingerprints. At borders or airports, travellers will have fingerprints scanned and photos taken to make sure they match their e-passports.

Switzerland is actually behind much of Europe, and all EU nations must institute fingerprint-enabled e-passports by next summer. Germany, France, and the Netherlands already issue them.

Some places are testing more advanced systems. At Manchester Airport, where facial-recognition devices have been installed in security gates, passengers with optional e-passports can bypass queues. Supporters say e-passports also enable a swift check on anyone entering the country against international watch lists.

The digitisation of personal information is a boon to firms in biometrics, or technology that can identify people based on unique physiological traits, such as fingerprints, DNA or even a person's gait or blood-vessel patterns. There are countless applications – from border control to medical records – and experts say it won't be long before such scans are part of everyday lives.

Lockheed Martin, the technology and aerospace giant, is one of several companies working with US government agencies to develop new applications. It is managing an effort by the Transportation Security Administration to give up to a million maritime and transportation workers access to secure areas of ports via biometric credentials, including finger and iris scans, which will be stored on biometric ID cards.

In the meantime, the FBI has formed an international agency with Australia, Britain, and Canada to set up a "Server in the Sky" – a network for sharing biometric data on criminals and terror suspects. The group, the International Information Consortium, says a global biometric clearing house would help nations combat terrorism and rapidly identify victims in major disasters.

Northrop Grumman, a Los Angeles firm specialising in security, is supplying the technology, although the initiative has met with resistance from privacy groups.

The private sector, though, has been experimenting with biometrics for years. Casinos use the technology, and some regional credit unions have tested programmes where members are identified by palm scans. Walt Disney World has long used finger scanners to identify visitors and prevent pass-sharing.

"Pre-9/11, the expectation was that [advances in biometrics] would percolate up from the commercial sector," says Lawrence Hornak, co-director of the US National Science Foundation's Center for Identification Technology Research. "But with the emphasis on security after 9/11, there are now major government initiatives."

Biometric proponents foresee a future in which body scanners replace passwords in computers and personal identification numbers at ATMs. "You always carry your physical characteristics with you," notes Hornak. "That provides a lot of convenience."

But a big hurdle is opposition from civil liberties groups. Many people are wary of a future in which cameras sample physical traits, compiling digital dossiers without their knowledge. And consumers fear hackers will steal information from centralised databases.

Most security analysts acknowledge that data breaches are inevitable – fingerprint scanners can be fooled with gummy sweets and a laser printer – but your biometrics are irreplaceable. "If my password security is breached, my bank and I can agree on another bit of secret information," says John Verdi of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "If I give my bank an iris scan and somebody spoofs it, I can't do anything other than poke out my eyes."

Verdi is not opposed to biometrics research, but he has a hard time believing that the advantages of current applications outweigh the risks. "The question is: What is so important that I'm willing to put that information out there?"

This article was sourced from the latest edition of BusinessWeek

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Assistant

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established ...

Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Report Writer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Technical Report Writer is re...

MBDA UK Ltd: Indirect Procurement Category Manager

Competitive salary & benefits!: MBDA UK Ltd: MBDA UK LTD Indirect Procurement...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness