Biometric databases: Cause for concern or helpful tool?

Consider this, a database that is so big that it will require 10 times the memory storage capacity of Facebook (and considering how Facebook interacts that’s a whole lot of memory)  and this database doesn’t plan on stopping there. It plans to collect the biometic data of India’s approximately 1.2 billion residents.  While India’s biometic database may currently be the largest plan to date, it is not without  competition.

The National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) of Nigeria announced a proposal to register 100 million Nigerians in its recently introduced biometric database system within a period of 30 months. This database would require Nigerians, aged 16 years and older to register their information, which is to be used to “harmonize” services and other databases such as Driver’s license, voter registration and online banking.

“Nigeria lacks a comprehensive database for its citizens as 75 percent of the available identity documents are fake or self-issued and they are sectoral silos without a common key,” Onyemenam said. “With a reliable national identity database in place, challenges of security and fraud would be dealt with because it would checkmate security threats.’’

Biometic databases are nothing new. The Washington Post reported in 2007 “The FBI is embarking on a $1 billion effort to build the world’s largest computer database of peoples’ physical characteristics, a project that would give the government unprecedented abilities to identify individuals in the United States and abroad.”   However, what you may not know is that according to this same article,

  • The Defense Department has been storing in a database images of fingerprints, irises and faces of more than 1.5 million Iraqi and Afghan detainees, Iraqi citizens and foreigners who need access to U.S. military bases.
  • The Pentagon also collects DNA samples from some Iraqi detainees, which are stored separately.
  • The Department of Homeland Security has been using iris scans at some airports to verify the identity of travelers who have passed background checks and who want to move through lines quickly.
  •  The DHS already has a database of millions of sets of fingerprints, which includes records collected from U.S. and foreign travelers stopped at borders for criminal violations, from U.S.

(Quoted for accuracy).

Nandan Nilekani, “father” of India’s Unique Identity (UID) program calls this “the biggest social project on the planet,”  and that the current system of identification (or lack thereof) actually “hampers economic growth and emboldens corrupt bureaucrats.”

Not everyone agrees,“Skeptics see a threat of state intrusions, or detect patriotic vanity.”  Nine million Israeli’s found out exactly how much concern a biometic database could cause when their government database was part of the country’s primary national biometric database was stolen.   This database contained the name, date of birth, national identification number, and family members of nine million living and dead Israelis, detailed health information, and information on birth parents of hundreds of thousands of adopted Israelis.

So, what would someone do with all this information?  Sell it of course.  Or cause all sorts of trouble by simply uploading it to the Internet, so that this information was freely downloadable.

The “thief” was caught, but not before the damage was done.

In the U.S. the new system came under scrutiny as it raised a number of privacy and security concerns.  The ACLU wondered if all the information gathered should be easily accessible, and what happens if it is incorrect?  Concerns regarding constitutional rights were also raised.

Other concerns about biometric data systems in the US were expressed by Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology forecaster,   “Unlike say, a credit card number, biometric data is forever. If someone steals and spoofs your iris image, you can’t just get a new eyeball,” Saffo said.

India and Nigeria are not the only one’s planning upgrades.  The FBI plans to make a “Bigger — Better — Faster,” program  with it’s plans for Next Generation Identification (NGI). This program would be a  billion-dollar upgrade to a database that will then contain: iris scans, photos searchable with face recognition technology, palm prints, and measures of gait and voice recordings alongside records of fingerprints, scars, and tattoos.

Proponents of biometric databases claim that these types of programs can help with everything from making shopping easier (as you pay with a thumbprint or iris scan and have it deducted from your account) to fighting fraud for public services and even protection against terrorist.  However, not everyone is convinced of the positive attributes citing privacy concerns and security breaches (as I found out with the recent Yahoo breach).  The Electronic Frontier Foundation offers this opinion,

“A biometric data collection program of this scale, particularly in the absence of an existing data protection law, presents serious risks to individuals’ privacy. Rather than improving people’s lives, Aadhaar could place their highly sensitive personal information at risk.”