Biometric scanners are authentication devices using distinctive, measurable human characteristics and traits such as fingerprints, facial contours, DNA, palm prints, iris or retina patterns, and voice patterns, to identify individuals through a verification process.
What We Learned from the Dialogue
Biometric scanners are authentication devices using distinctive, measurable human characteristics and traits such as fingerprints, facial contours, DNA, palm prints, iris or retina patterns, and voice patterns, to identify individuals through a verification process. The most widely used example may be India’s national ID program (Aadhaar), which is the largest biometric database in the world. Aiming to cover all 1.25 billion citizens of India using biometric data (e.g., fingerprint, iris scan and facial recognition) and demographic data (e.g., name, age, gender, address, parent/spouse name and mobile phone number), it is currently used by 550 million residents to engage with public services from local and national government agencies. Several other governments also use biometric scanners to oversee immigration and elections, businesses use the technology for secure access to facilities, hospitals for protecting patient information and even some humanitarians have incorporated biometric scanners to manage refugee camps.
Security has been driving the growth of biometric tools. Institutions can control access, track movements and protect assets by verifying authorized people’s physical traits, which are less likely to be forged than other forms of identification. Users reported finding great value in using the systems maintained by public and private institutions, but few have found it practical to own a biometric scanner for personal use. The costs can be prohibitive for ordinary citizens and their needs rarely require systems as robust as those currently on the market. Today’s industrial scanners are supported by specially trained personnel as well as additional systems and services designed to manage large populations and their data. Even seemingly simple biometric scanners like the fingerprint recognition systems on computers and smart phones, required years of specialized software development and dedicated hardware interfaces.
Furthermore, all biometric devices require the following:
Unfortunately, not all of these attributes can be achieved at the same time via current biometric systems. For example, recent experiences in using biometrics for voter registration and voting processes in Nigeria and Kenya, experienced multiple hardware, software and human errors. In the near future, however, as the technology is perfected and users become more practiced, biometric scanners will help to streamline and personalize services, establish an accurate population count, reduce duplication, impose accountability, and provide formal identity and rights to those currently unrecognized.
During the regional consultations, community members and experts were divided in their feelings about biometric scanners. Participants agreed biometric scanners would be useful tools to manage relief distributions and cash grants, find and reconnect separated families, and restore lost documentation. Community members appreciated that biometrics could help them fight false criminal accusations and prove their identity more immediately than DNA testing. Residents of Nairobi, Kenya’s informal settlements, in particular, envisioned that biometric scanners could help improve their living situation. With proof of identity, they could gain access to financial services as well as have a greater understanding of their community’s size and demographics to advocate for additional resources and responsive policies.
That said, community members also noted some drawbacks to the technology, including potential abuses of power, privacy breaches and fraud. Some residents did not want to be tracked, traced or profiled by the government. In response, community members universally requested that a trusted, third-party manage and protect their data; neutral humanitarian organizations were recommended to serve as brokers. During the dialogue, participants also noted that if nongovernmental organizations play this role, data transfer protocols will need to be established between them and states to ensure national and international coverage.
Others involved in the dialogue worried that if the system failed, they would be denied access and benefits. This was particularly true of those who may have cataracts or are missing fingerprints. Redundant methods of scanning would help reduce this potential and remove some of their concerns about using biometric scanners in the future, they noted.
These and other discussions showcased relatively low levels of data literacy among the disaster survivors involved in the dialogue. Most of the community town hall participants, for example, lacked understanding of basic data principles and practices, and depending on mass media and other influences, they either expressed ignorance and vulnerability or suspicion and rejection of today’s data management systems. It is important to note, that regardless of their location in the world, people have an expectation of data privacy and security. Even if they are willing to trade on it temporarily post-disaster, we must not take advantage of their vulnerability.