Using biometrics in government

Whether in regard to Heathrow Terminal 5, Schengen Visas or ID cards, biometrics has certainly made the headlines in recent years. Yet for all their notoriety, this maturing technology is frequently misunderstood and its benefits remain ill defined in the public mind.
Like so many other innovations that populate today’s world, biometrics is a fairly recent technological development. The ingenuity lies in being able to identify individuals based on unique physical characteristics. As the Information Commissioner’s Office stated in a 2006 report: “The allure of biometrics is the appearance of an ‘anchor’ for identity in the human body, to which data and information can be fixed… The idea is that accuracy will be increased and fraud reduced. PINs and passwords may be forgotten or lost, but the body provides a constant, direct link between record and person.”

Today, biometrics encompasses a whole range of applications, including iris and facial recognition, finger scans, hand geometry, signature and voice dynamics, and vascular patterns. This has made them an optimal tool for identity management, for instance in helping individuals to claim entitlements that are distinctly their own. It has also brought biometrics into wider discussions around information assurance.
Although historically biometrics developed in the defence and security sector – often to facilitate access control in sensitive areas – it has since expanded into the wider domain. Primarily, this is because the need to assure that someone is who they say they are can be important anywhere, as in the case of an employee accessing a bank, a construction worker entering a secure site (think the Olympics) or a citizen asserting their identity vis-à-vis the government.
In this context, current day biometrics is characterised by a number of trends – both technical and in the value it brings. On the technical side, the previous decade has seen a marked improvement in the accuracy of the algorithms used and the quality of enrolment, both of which are determining factors to the technology’s success. The UK enjoys a competitive advantage in this area and is well placed to lead the global market.
In terms of value, it is clear that biometrics will continue to serve its primary function as a security solution, but also that its benefits are beginning to reach beyond security, in some cases contributing to operational effectiveness and citizen convenience.

Where it works
The latter points are well illustrated by a number of examples in the field. In the area of criminal justice, recent public initiatives include the rollout of mobile fingerprint scanners that enable police officers to verify the identity of suspects on the spot. Known as Project Midas, this initiative follows on from the very successful trials that were run in connection with the National Policing Improvement Agency’s Lantern Project two years ago. By equipping officers with handheld biometric devices, the police are able to swiftly check a person’s identity in an operational environment. This increases officer safety as support and back-up becomes more readily accessible, and can help to identify wanted or potentially dangerous criminals.
As a senior technology officer with the NPIA recently commented, the project is also envisaged to save “enormous amounts of police time and reduce the number of wrongful arrests.” The application of biometrics, in this instance, enhances overall effectiveness as front-line personnel are directed towards the real ‘hotspots’.
To take another example, consider the case of biometric identity cards. In the public debate on ID cards, biometrics has sometimes been portrayed as a tool of the ‘database state’, invoking images of a government accumulating masses of personal information as an end in itself. While concerns around the security of data and privacy of citizens are a crucial part of the debate and indeed should be incorporated into the governance of the scheme, it is important to recognise some of the potential benefits not to the state but to the citizen.

Increased security
Biometrics affords ID cards an additional layer of identity assurance, as the cardholder’s identity is anchored not only in what they hold (the card itself) and what they know (e.g. a PIN number), but also in who they are. With this level of security, one could imagine citizens using their ID cards not merely to prove their identity but to access public services in a whole variety of ways, including online.
Indeed, this is already the case outside of the UK. In Belgium, citizens use their ID cards to manage their social security, request car licence plates and conduct their tax declarations over the internet. They also use them to access services as diverse as healthcare, home banking and various forms of e-commerce. Emulating these benefits here in the UK could have a transformative effect on the citizen’s interaction with the state, and provide ‘Digital Britain’ with the identity infrastructure it will invariably need.
To cite a third and final example of how biometrics can demonstrate value in government, consider the link between biometrics and information security. Recent research has shown that biometrics can play an important role in securing data, particularly in the context of digital rights management. The government holds a lot of sensitive data, and so the need to regulate and manage access to that data has become critical.
As we move into a digital age, using the traditional ‘username’ and ‘password’ when accessing information may not always be enough. Many users store their passwords in obvious and easily accessible locations, and given that the same password is frequently used to access multiple applications, data security can become jeopardised. Given the recent data losses and reviews across government, now may be an opportune time to consider how and where biometrics may be usefully deployed. It is clear from the outset that biometrics will not be needed everywhere, only in those areas where an additional layer of assurance is required.
This is a technology that can be used in transformative ways, both in government and beyond. While not a silver bullet, it is clear that in combination with other technologies biometrics can help the government achieve its goals in a number of areas – whether relating to national security, transforming public services or information security. Whereas in the past much of the discussion has gravitated towards questions of privacy and surveillance, now it is perhaps time to take a broader view. Using this technology proportionally and responsibly is common sense, as is the need to govern the handling of data more generally. Let us not lose sight of the power of technology to effect positive change.

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