The Social and Ethical Implications of Biometrics
What are biometrics[i] exactly? In today’s information driven society in which the greatest tool of information dissemination, the Internet, has become the home of disinformation, conspiracy theories and personal opinions packaged as authoritative fact it is necessary to define exactly what the term biometrics means so that the consequences of implementing the worldwide use of biometrics can even be reasonably discussed. So what are biometrics? Well a biometric or biometric identifier is an objective measurement of a physical characteristic of an individual which, when captured in a database, can be used to verify the identity or check against other entries in the database (Youmaran & Adler, 2012). The best known biometric is the fingerprint, but with technology moving forward in leaps and bounds there are many other forms such as facial recognition software, retinal scans, DNA analysis, voice recognition, and even odor sensitivity (Youmaran & Adle,, 2012). Biometrics are quickly becoming the ultimate tool in a world that is becoming smaller and smaller and more and more interconnected globally, a grand family where all the various members are linked together by computer technology, information and science in ways previously unimaginable at any other point in human history. From a purely technical perspective it is of course very possible at this point to establish a center to store biometric data and to test and evaluate biometric technologies but there are many legal, technical, ethical issues and sociocultural issues which must be first addressed with respect to any future implementation of biometrics, especially with respect to individual privacy and the scope to which the organizations collecting this data would have access and some form of control over an individual’s biometrics which are far more private and revealing than any government issued ID number (Lodge, 2012). As the technology becomes more and more a reality, these concerns must be addressed if society and the world in general is to quickly come to an informed consensus as to how this technology should be used and to establish extremely strong checks, balances and controls in order to limit potential abuses and the inevitable ethical violations which surely will arise. In the end humanity must ask itself how much of ourselves do we need to share with the rest of the world? When has connectivity gone too far?
James Watson, the co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA and the founding father of the Human Genome Project declared that “we used to think our fate was in the stars. Now we know a large part of it is in our genes (Horgon, 2003, p197).” The Human Genome Project was hailed as one of the greatest achievements in this century because coupled with new medical technologies such as gene therapy, stem cell research, and prenatal medicine, the possibility to “improve” the human race became a possibility. Pharmaceutical companies began to actually patent the rights to certain genes in an effort to control the lucrative market that was rapidly rising in treating illnesses at the genetic level, and litigation quickly began flying through the court system as to whether or not a gene could [ii]be owned (Horgan, 2003). In much the same way the use of biometrics raises a possibility that whole classes of people will be marginalized because things that were previously private would be revealed. For example, even though certain individuals carry the gene for Muscular Dystrophy and phenotypically speaking are perfectly healthy, because the public now would have access to their DNA profile these individuals would become less desirable as a potential mates. Potential employers could reject individuals’ applications for employment for fear that their medical insurance costs would rise, or that these individuals would have to take many sick days despite the fact that phenotypically they did not suffer from the illness. In a world where people’s identities are stolen every hour, how could core biological information such as this be safeguarded? The fact is once Pandora’s box is opened it cannot be closed, and even with safeguards and ethical checks and balances in place human laws often do not take into account human nature.
Part of the allure of using biometrics to categorize and organize our world in further depth is that our bodies (unlike any sort of physical documentation no matter how sophisticated) can provide an objective and verifiable source of truth about our identities, our genetics and even our psychology and it is these technologies which are believed to give access to this inseparable part of humanity (Martin & Whitley, 2013). Biometrics are also believed to be capable of securing or fixing identity in a way that makes fraudulent or multiple identities much more difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. Through the use of biometrics, organizations aim to individuate entire populations and then fix identities to administrative markers such as unique identification numbers [iii](Ackerman, 2012). The concern that the unethical use of biometrics against vulnerable individuals for the benefit of others becomes a very real concern. To minimize this concern there must be some sort of national if not international body to shoulder the onus of maintaining any potential database and even then, cross-cultural difficulties and barriers will no doubt affect just what is considered a violation of privacy and what is considered to be acceptable level of transparency when it comes to collecting the biological information needed for biometrics to work (Youmaran & Adler, 2012). Of course the administrative burden would be greatly reduced by biometrics, since a person’s identity would be established by their body itself and not by various pieces of documentation, and thus the cost to the taxpayers for the organizations which must maintain these records would be greatly reduced (Lodge, 2012). Imagine a world with no more long DMV lines because all your information could be coded into a database, based upon your own biology. No need to renew a license when your own body functions as your license. The term inter-operability best describes what proponents of this technology are trying to achieve. With the simple implantation of a RFID chip subcutaneously coded with an individual’s biological information that is unique to them, all their banking, medical, travel, and commercial and cross-border information becomes easily manageable (Lodge, 2012). In this mind set the many concerns that most citizens raise are batted aside with the idea that if one has nothing to hide then one has nothing to fear from this technology.
In conclusion, biometrics is not just another technology that the average ignorant person automatically resists, as is natural to humanity because it represents a change in the fundamental way that we live and interact with the world and each other. As the world becomes smaller and smaller and the population continues to grow, individual privacy will begin to mean that much more than it did a few decades ago as we become forced to be connected to others in ways that we perhaps neither envisioned nor wanted. Because of this it is very important that the debate about biometrics remain very much in the public spotlight and that those advocating or criticizing its use have an open forum in which to air their views in a way that the public, who will be most dramatically affected by the implementation of this technology, have the opportunity to make an informed decision on what could be the last time that we as a species are truly multicultural and diverse. Without ethical, sociological and legal oversight this technology has the potential to change this world but in ways that no one will able to predict.
Ackerman, S. (2012). U.S. holds onto biometric databases of 3 million Iraqis. Wired, December 21. Retrieved from
Horgan, J. (2003). Eugenics revisited. Scientific American, 269(6), 122-131.
Lodge, J. (2012). The dark side of biometrics: accommodation, ethics and new biometrics. International Library of Ethics, Law, and Technology, 2, 305-328.
Martin, A., K., & Whitley, E., A. (2013). Fixing identity? Biometrics and the tensions of material practices. Media, Culture and Society, 35(1), 52-60.
Youmaran, R., & Adler, A. (2012). Measuring biometric sample quality in terms of biometric feature information in the iris image. Journal of Electrical and Computer Engineering, 1, 1-9.
[i] The term biometrics comes from branch of biology that studies biological phenomena and observations by means of statistical analysis but has evolved into use as the definition given at the beginning of this paper.
[ii] There are 3,000–5,000 U.S. patents on human genes and 47,000 on inventions involving genetic material. There is at present a patent reform bill passed by the House of Representatives and is pending in the Senate; there is also a bipartisan bill to ban gene patenting.
[iii] This system is actively in use in the modern military. The “dog tag” has been replaced with RFID chips ostensibly so that even the smallest body part will be able to be identified.