Biometrics isn’t content with your name, serial number, and social security
So once you’ve bought your e-ticket, maybe printed it out, and are on your way to the airport after already having electronically checked in, selected your seat, and picked which starter you’re having with the chicken – via the web, you could be anyone.
All you’ve done to this point is say you are who you are – but without any evidence.
The once simple passport is now being thrown forever further into the future in an effort to prove you are who you say you are.
This document, proof that you exist, can only do so much. For years all you needed was some badly bound paper, a photo booth mug shot, and some messy chicken scratches. Then the specifications of the photo got more finicky. Now, it comes with your life history pre-uploaded to its microchip.
The flaw, no matter how well the picture was taken, is that a passport has still been too far removed from the physical entity that is you. And the steely-eyed gaze of the passport control official can only do so much. She looks at a bad photo, stares at your bad hair day, and just a few quick seconds and hand motions later, you are grunted through with a freshly stamped passport. Even if she was reading up on your history of parking violations, there is nothing to say that passport is really yours.
Nothing physical that is. No one’s suggesting we have to offer blood, or even hair samples, and stand in line for genetic screening, to guarantee or authenticate our heritage. This is where biometrics weighs in to offer a middle ground.
The term biometrics refers to computer-based technology that can assess physiological and selected behavioral characteristics. In its purest sense, biometrics is the study and analysis of biological measurements. For travelers on the ground, it’s a way of verifying your voice, fingerprints, hand geometry, face, handwriting, your iris, and even how you walk – to be measured and used for identification.
The reasoning here is much like that of medieval times; passwords are like knocking three times then coughing. Your name and password, even if it is your mother’s maiden name, are hardly secure.
Biometrics can also mean that you don’t need to remember that secret knock. Unlike a password and PIN number, your biometric traits cannot be lost, stolen or duplicated. If it helps to understand possible applications of this technology, just imagine leaning your thumb onto a bar-code size scanner of sorts as you pay with your credit card – immediately confirming you are who you claim to be – by matching up your fingerprint with the information stored in the credit card’s chip.
It is still comparing your biological data with its own stored digital data about you. Like using a cash machine might require speaking into a microphone, tapping in your PIN, and having your ATM card with you; this would better guarantee who is making the withdrawal – an imposter might get two of those three items, but would never be able to speak like you.
Cynics claim that certain people could be targeted and exploited through their biometric data. Tracking refugees or migrant workers, who likely do not have valid identification papers, is easily done. And others may be monitored as a result of profiling, when a law enforcement agency will target not only your physical characteristics and ethnicity, but also your cultural ones like religion.
Imagine if the information were compromised though. An insurer or prospective employer might like to know if you have any medical conditions that could pre-exclude you from the application process – if you’re thinking “Gattaca, with jobs preemptively assigned based on your genetic scan, then it’s a bleak future.
It was July last year that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in America announced that countries not requiring a visa to enter the States would need biometric passports to be valid for entry. These biometric passports must comply with technical standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization. After much moaning by the governments and civil liberties groups of the 27 affected countries, and several formal delays to the deadline, the DHS just announced this week that 24 of those 27 countries have met their requirements. Many other countries outside of this group have also at least started to move to biometric passports in the hopes it will lower fraudulence. Even Somalia announced on Wednesday the intent to move their passport to biometrics.
Airports around the world – and even schools, shopping centers, and grocery stores in parts of the West – are putting measures in place to champion this high-tech approach. Vast computer arrays are starting to correlate biometric data all over the world.
The weak links that are inherent in computer security are still there and using biometrics to plug that hole just diverts attention. After all, numerous people capable of planning and executing many acts of terror, as is true of several that have taken place in recent history, don’t have a criminal record or have done anything else suspicious anyway.
Ink-based fingerprinting has been in use for decades. The ancient Egyptians were said to have kept records of people’s distinguishing features and bodily measurements, for the purpose of identification.
So biometrics is nothing new – it’s just getting a 21st century makeover. And though fingerprinting is still the most popular form of biometrics identification, if it’s done electronically and scanned, it’s still enough to tell who you are, where you are, and what you are doing.