Comment: Biometrics and the chances of owning a hoverboard
16 December 2014 13:10 GMT

The hoverboard first featured in the 1989 film Back to the Future II

By Justin Hughes

I may be a little late to the party on this one but again I find myself amazed at the influence that movies in general have on daily life. For years we've seen movies being used as incidental consumer testing grounds for new technology and driving an innovation market all on their own - you only need to look at the recent Kickstarter campaign to fund a hoverboard, first featured in the 1989 movie Back to the Future II, to see the positive effect.

However, as well as having a creative power to boost innovation, films also have the ability to kill or at the very least seriously harm new technology. For one thing, anyone who tries to build a Death Star is going to find their motives immediately questioned, even if the power to destroy a planet is just a feature on your version of the International Space Station.

My main gripe today though is with the portrayal of biometrics in films and television. For years we have seen hands being hacked off to fool fingerprint scanners, eyes being plucked out to trick iris scanners and people being framed for crimes by someone who's slipped their used wine glass into a conveniently available bag to steal their fingerprints and implement them in some cunning plot.

Leaving out the likelihood of these scenarios for a second, biometrics is almost invariably portrayed as a big, bad government's best friend and the fighter for liberty's worst nightmare. Where it's used in a positive light, it is almost always associated with a crime-fighting scenario rather than a benefit to daily life.

I'd like to see biometrics being portrayed with a measure of realism, pragmatism and positivity. Granted, these aren't necessarily the traits that make a good movie and this may have something to do with why I've not being asked to direct the next James Bond film. But if we continue to show biometrics as a huge invasion of personal liberty, a weak security measure that can be bypassed by anyone with a meat-cleaver and an indifference to blood or a means to hunt down the proverbial good guys, we create a climate of suspicion and mistrust that stops us seeing the real benefits.

When used correctly and when understood correctly, the biometric traits you carry around with you every day could help facilitate everything from accessing your place of work, paying for goods, driving your car and customizing your home. They could help retailers show you products you’re interested in, airlines whisk you through a terminal or holiday resorts personalize your stay. They could also play an invaluable role in helping ensure free and fair elections, provide aid to those that need it most and reunite loved ones fleeing conflict.

This is not to say that we should ignore the concerns - there are serious questions over what companies and governments are doing with our biometric data, how they're protecting it and who they're sharing it with. However, this debate needs to be held in an open and informed way, not as a knee-jerk reaction to something we saw on television.

If all goes well, movie directors and script writers may in part be responsible for fulfilling my dream of one day owning a hoverboard. I'd hate it if they were also responsible for me not being able to use biometrics as a great technological step forward.

Justin Hughes is an identity management specialist at PA Consulting Group