NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Biometrics May be Impractical

May 29, 2003

Biometrics -- the statistical study of biological phenomenon such as the shape of your face, the minutiae of your fingertips, the bone structure of your hand or the pattern of specks on your iris -- is being considered by public policy leaders as a new security measure in the fight against terrorism.

If implemented, iris scans and fingerprint minutiae will be used to determine who boards an airplane, who enters the country and who is detained by immigration officials. Despite the good intentions of government leaders, biometrics could open a Pandora's box of security threats and privacy concerns.

Biometric system testing has traditionally involved small sample sizes. Unfortunately, when the sample sizes increase, so does the error rate -- resulting in either the denial of legitimate people or the acceptance of imposters.

Even the most reliable systems using fingerprints face implementation challenges:

  • Age, scrapes and too much manual labor can distort a person's fingertip minutia.
  • If the system is not updated for such variation, it can collapse.
  • Scanners, especially for fingerprints, need to constantly update an individual's biometric information.
  • The scanners themselves are pricey, at around $2,500 each.

Another concern is theft and illegal access. Fraud could occur as soon as someone signs up, through bribes or by simply tapping into the database. Security of the type of networks on which such information is stored and exchanged is an area of even greater concern.

The opportunities to sabotage a system alter data or steal information, increase exponentially when valuable personal information is on an interlinked, cross agency, electronic system provided over the Internet.

Source: Morgan Haley Long, "Getting Scanned: Biometrics & A National ID," Volume 4, Number 3, Winter 2002/2003, ALEC Policy Forum, American Legislative Exchange Council.


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