Biometric fallacies

Re-posted from archive of infinite ideas machine 2004:

It’s a few months old now, but the salient points of ‘The emerging use of biometrics’ in The Economist still have a bearing:

Biometrics still do not work well enough for many applications in which they are being deployed.

UKPS biometrics trial, anyone?

Biometrics have not yet spread beyond such niche markets, for two main reasons. The first is the unease they can inspire among users. Many people would prefer not to have to submit their eyes for scanning in order to withdraw money from a cash dispenser. The second reason is cost.

I wonder if MORI had asked ‘Do you want to be fingerprinted and have your iris scanned and have both kept in a Government database?’ instead of ‘Would you have an ID card?’ whether 80% of people would have said ‘yes’?

And as for cost – £3.1 billion? And the rest…

Governments either do not believe that the costs of biometrics still outweigh any potential benefits or, more likely, fearing more terrorism they simply do not care.

A classic knee-jerk reaction, but one that even Blunkett is having to play down these days. As the author says later in the article, “[it] is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the chief motivation for deploying biometrics is not so much to provide security, but to provide the appearance of security.” N.B. for ‘terrorism’ read also ‘illegal immigration’, ‘illegal working’, etc.

The oldest biometric is the one we use most frequently—a person’s face. But while recognising faces is something that people can do easily, computers find it very difficult.

Recognising faces is something we are built to do (from the neurones up) but what we do is much, much more than simply recognise someone’s face – we connect memories, have feelings and opinions about people and can build relationships with them over time. Computers compare pixels, measurements and database records according to fixed rules – nothing more. And only one of these provides a real basis for trust.

It is only logical to expect biometric passports and visas to take a multibiometric approach.

Precisely because of the limits of each individual method! And they make the highly significant point also that, “…[the] other critical choice, driven by the limitations of biometric technology, is that these biometrics will be used for verification, not identification. That is because identification is simply not feasible with databases containing millions of users.” [emphasis added]

There’s lots more good stuff here, including a digestible run-down of the most common biometric methods – well worth a read.

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