Bin Laden and biometrics – Killing two birds with one stone?
20 July 2011 12:44 GMT

From the desk of Emilio Mordini

According to a famous, although probably spurious, anecdote, Michael Faraday – who first formulated the laws of electromagnetic induction – was once explaining his discovery to the British Prime Minister, Lord Gladstone. When Gladstone, asked: "But after all what use is it?" Faraday replied: "Well sir, there is every probability you will be able to tax it." 

When governments have no idea how a new technology can be employed, their last resource has often been to tax it. Another way technologically ignorant politicians have attempted to make sense of technology innovation is to use it for military and security purposes.
 
We can all be thankful that biometrics seem to have avoided the first risk (although never say never in matters of taxes), but not the second.
 
Since 9/11, biometrics have been heralded by politicians as the panacea for all security problems. The worst thing that can happen to a new technology is to be badly marketed in its starting phase. This has happened to biometrics. Access control, at any level, from national borders to fitness clubs, both physical and logical, is undoubtedly an important element of security schemes. There is no doubt that identity screening and verification can increase security. Yet it is odd, to say the least, that the immediate response after an attack carried out by terrorists who legitimately entered the USA using their true identity, was to launch a vast, worldwide, biometric programme. This was, however, what happened and biometric companies certainly cannot be blamed for taking advantage.
 
It was soon evident that biometrics were not the dramatic breakthrough in security they were claimed to be. Their importance was inflated and – as with many other bubbles – wiser commentators have started worrying about the possibility of an imminent burst. 
 
On the day of Osama Bin Laden’s death, a friend of mine – a key EU officer with a prominent position in the EU security programme – commented: “I’m afraid that they have killed two birds – Bin Laden and biometrics."
 
Hopefully this view was too cynical…Yet it is time for all those who think that biometrics are a breakthrough to go beyond security and military applications. This does not mean we should abandon security applications, but finally put them in context.
 
As someone who has devoted the last ten years of his professional career to ethical and policy implications of biometrics, by leading three European actions in this area ( www.biteproject.org, www.hideproject.eu, www.riseproject.eu) and participating in a countless number of events, I have always felt saddened that privacy advocates and civil liberty defendants devoted their best energies to protect solely the privacy of well-off western citizens from “biometric offences”, while worldwide some 50 million children are not even registered at birth, and are destined to become future world inhabitants without a certain civil identity.
 
Of course, our privacy is important and all those who protect it are welcome. Yet biometrics could help to address the appalling problem of unregistered children, and this would be not only an ethical and human rights breakthrough, but also, let me say, the best way to secure international routes from sinister, badly identified, travellers.
 
This is the first of a series of comments devoted to the ethics of biometrics that PlanetBiometrics.com is graciously hosting. I beg the reader’s pardon for not respecting disciplinary boundaries and not writing only about those things that one may expect from an ethicist. But there is time in which writing of only ethics would be unethical.
 

Emilio Mordini