By Peggy Emch
Biometrics are the methods used to verify identity using intrinsic physical or behavioral traits such as photographs, fingerprints, or facial/voice recognition. It is becoming widely used within the government, nuclear power plants, hospitals, airports, the workplace, and even schools. Its use is controversial but its benefits are undeniable. Biometrics helps protect sensitive data, ensure login identity, and prevent criminal activity.
Government Uses of Biometric Technology
Biometrics is an identity authentication, and force protection tool used widely in military installations around the world. In the Air Force, before hiring third party nationals, a variety of biometric data must be collected for these prospective employees. The data is then sent to the DOD Biometric Fusion Center in West Virginia to be compared against the Defense Biometrics Identification System. If everything checks out, the contractor can begin employment with the government. This step is critical to ensure that everyone on the military base is not a known criminal. These precautionary measures also prevent unauthorized people from entering the base. Thanks to this technology tragedies like what happened in Mosul, Iraq in 2004 are also no longer possible, where a suicide bomber gained access to the base with only a badge and a uniform, killing 22 people.
Not only is biometrics used to prevent criminal activity but it can also be used to locate criminals. In the 2001 Superbowl, facial images of the 100,000 visitors were compared against the mugshots of the Tampa police. No criminals were found, however, it is an interesting case. Biometrics is becoming an asset in the wake of terrorist attacks. It can help identify travelers into the US as blacklisted individuals. The Department of Homeland Security has placed upgraded biometric devices at all its major ports of entry recently. Just this month Australia announced that it will be implementing a system to include biometric visas for individuals applying from countries of high risk. Biometrics is used in many countries around the world. It has even been used to ensure the authenticity of elections in Africa.
In a time of heightened awareness of terrorist attacks and identity theft, biometrics might come as a relief to some, but others may see it as a violation of privacy. Wide spread use of this technology is forthcoming as the safety and protection of the people is becoming harder and harder to ensure. Many schools are very large and are requiring biometric scans as the children enter in order to prevent intruders. In the future we can expect to see fingerprint scans used with banks as a replacement for signatures.
As we know from the privacy debates after September 11th, there are ethical concerns associated with added protection. The feeling of being watched can make us feel vulnerable. It can be unnerving to think that whether or not our children attended school on such and such day is sitting in a database somewhere. However, not all uses of biometrics are so personally revealing. Within the workplace for example, using a fingerprint as opposed to a pin code to sign in to work is simply a way to ensure that we are who we say we are. The information pertains only to our identity at work and is no more telling than the fact that you were or weren't there. This should come as a relief to those who are planning on implementing a new system for their workforce.
Biometrics in the Workplace
As biometric technology gets simpler to use it is now showing up more and more inside the workplace. Employers don't have to be technical geniuses to use it. Many timekeeping products offer the technology built right into the online punch clock system which makes its broad use possible. Biometrics in the workplace offers myriad benefits to a business large or small. First, it adds convenience to login access by eliminating the need for passwords. This can be a relief to employees who have to remember multiple passwords for various programs and office tasks. With biometric technology a user needs only to present the feature data, like a finger, to the sensor and access is either granted or denied based on whether the feature data is approved. Additionally, in large complexes where thousands of employees use cards to gain access to a building, the security of the building and information can be compromised if someone misplaces their card. A biometric entry system ensures that no cards are lost and no one without the proper identity is admitted. While safety and convenience are important, the overall profitability of the business can be seriously affected by labor costs. Biometrics helps ensure that labor costs are just what they should be. One of the biggest problems with the old punch clock technology is the loophole identified as buddy punching within the industry. Employees figured out that they can use a password or punch card and punch in or out for their friends. Naturally, the costs of labor in these cases would not match productivity. If an employee must be physically present to punch in, then the problem of buddy punching is totally eliminated - at least for now.
Breaking the Code
Interestingly, biometrics is not fail safe. While it would take some painstaking effort to sabotage a persons identity, it could be done. Fake biometrics such as a fake finger or face mask can be presented at the biometric sensor. Additionally, the feature representation data could be tampered with so that the true feature data is replaced by fraudulent feature data. It would take a serious mastermind to accomplish this, however. Historically, technology evolves with our ability to crack codes. In a few years fingerprint scanners may be a common peripheral to a personal computer, but eventually even that technology will be compromised and replaced with something else.
The methods of protecting and verifying our identity must evolve as our population grows and becomes more complex. Access cards, signatures, and passwords are easily compromised. Our signatures are stored in files all over the globe. There is already a trail of each and every one of us inside the files of hundreds of banks and companies. A person could learn a lot about an individual from that trail and even add to it with fraudulent signatures, like we see in cases of identity theft. Biometrics is simply a sophisticated attempt to solve these problems, and while it requires that we submit some very personal data, we can rest assured that the data is not easily forged.
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