Biometrics Offers Advantages and Controversy

biometrics graphic: eye and lock

Biometrics is a high tech word for an old concept: how we go about recognizing one another. Biometric authentication uses automated methods based on physical characteristics or behavioral traits for human recognition.  Examples of biometrics include iris and retina scanning, digitized fingerprints, hand geometry and speaker recognition.

Biometric authentication offers advantages over current security practices.  Unlike keys and tokens, biometrics are never lost or stolen.  Unlike passwords and PINs, biometrics cannot be forgotten. Because of their security, speed, efficiency and convenience, biometric authentication systems might soon become the standard for access control.

Biometrics is not without controversy, however.  Many fear that the government could use biometrics to track and monitor Americans in everyday transactions. This "Big Brother" concern relates to informational privacy, or a citizen's ability to control information about himself.  Others believe that biometrics are stigmatizing. A small minority voices religious objections to the technology's use.

The Army's Use of Biometrics

The Army can use biometric technology in many ways. During wartime, the Army's dependence on information as a tactical and strategic asset requires control over battlefield networks.  Logistics flows, weapon systems, and intelligence could benefit from biometric technology, particularly with the "Digitized Army" of the 21st Century.  During peacetime, the Army has to control access to secured facilities, computer and office systems, and classified information.  The Army also manages many huge human services that require efficiency, security, and convenience. Biometric technology could be used to improve these peacetime functions.  Given these potential applications, Congress appropriated $15 million for the Army to assess biometrics.

Identifying and Addressing Sociocultural Concerns

Recognizing that sociocultural factors strongly influence program success, the Army made it a priority to examine these issues.  Accordingly, Lieutenant General William Campbell, the Army's Chief Information Officer, asked researchers in RAND's Force Development and Technology Program in the Arroyo Center to address the social, legal, and ethical (sociocultural) implications of Army-mandated use of biometrics.  RAND staff worked closely with Mr. Phillip Loranger, the Director of the Army's Biometrics Office and his staff in the Office of the Secretary of the Army Director of Information Systems C4.

Research Questions and Key Findings

The RAND Biometric Team's approach included:

  • Assembling a multidisciplinary team

  • Reviewing the literature on biometric technology

  • Interviewing biometric program experts

  • Attending conferences

  • Developing hypotheses

  • Interviewing legal/ethics experts

  • Testing results in a workshop

The RAND team assessed the distinctiveness and intrusiveness of various biometric techniques, such as fingerprint, facial, speaker, and iris recognition.  They also identified three key sociocultural concerns: 1) information privacy, 2) physical privacy, and 3) religious objections.

Biometrics also raise different concerns, such as the potential use of the technology to link medical predispositions, behavioral types, or other characteristics to particular biometric patterns.

How Should the Army Address These Concerns?

The team found that there are many privacy laws already in place, and the Army can rely on these existing regulations for a minimalist approach. The RAND team also proposed that the Army could pursue a broader, more integrated approach by:

  • Thoroughly justifying why biometrics are a viable solution to a particular problem

  • Structuring program and select technologies to minimize privacy concerns

  • Educating the Army community and public about the program purpose and structure, to allay concerns and generate support, and

  • Establishing an Army body to guide these procedures and ensure that concerns are adequately addressed throughout all stages of implementation.

A PowerPoint slide presentation provides more information about the RAND team's research questions and findings.

The Biometric Consortium 2000 Conference Web site: http://www.nist.gov/bc2000