Biometrics at the Frontiers: Asseccing the Impact on Society

Posted on April 04th, 2005

In June 2004, the Committee on Citizens’ Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs of the European Parliament (the LIBE Committee) asked the JRC to carry out a study on the future impact of biometric technologies. The then Commissioner for Research, Mr. Philippe Busquin, passed this request to IPTS for implementation; IPTS had done previous work for the Parliament in this area of policy support, and as the JRC’s prospective studies institute, it was well-placed to address the matter.

I. Purpose and Structure of the Report

In spring 2004, the LIBE1 Committee of the European Parliament asked DG JRC to carry out a prospective study on the impact of biometric technologies. The study kick-off meeting took place in Brussels the following July with a view to delivering a final report early in 2005. The present report constitutes that deliverable.
The prospective approach has led to one of the main messages of the study: that biometric-based identification will proliferate in society, extending from initial government use to civil and commercial applications, and that this proliferation will have a profound impact on society. We try to assess the long-term implications of this so-called ‘diffusion effect’ and suggest policy initiatives that might minimise any negative impacts.
The objective of the report is to raise awareness on the implications of the large-scale implementation of biometrics so as to help enhance the quality of informed decision-making at the European level.
In order to achieve this, four scenarios have been designed to depict a future societywhere biometrics are used in many different ways. The scenarios represent likely applications of biometric technologies rather than a prediction of possible outcomes.
They aim at helping stimulate discussion and raise awareness about the emerging issues. The report also attempts to address the current lack of data and research by considering the social, legal, economic and technological challenges and analysing in depth four biometric technologies – face, fingerprint, iris and DNA. The report concludes by identifying a number of issues that policymakers need to address.

II. The Report’s conclusions and recommendations

The introduction of biometrics affects the way our society is evolving towards a knowledge society and poses a number of technological challenges. These need to be addressed in the near future if policy is to shape the use of biometrics rather than react to it. A pro-active approach embracing a number of different policy areas – security, industrial policy, competitiveness and competition policy – is one fully consistent with the Lisbon goals, ensuring that Europe reaps the benefits of governmental initiatives in this important area.
In a list of examples, the authors suggest that biometric entry systems would be used at school cafeterias or facial recognition facilities for public transport.

The study has identified a number of issues that require further consideration and action so that Europe can benefit from the large-scale deployment of biometric technologies. Two overriding conclusions provide the basis for the report’s recommendations:

The ‘diffusion effect’. The use of biometrics can deliver improved convenience and value to individuals. It is expected that once the public becomes accustomed to using biometrics at the borders, their use in commercial applications will follow. The diffusion effect is likely to require the addition of specific provisions on biometrics to the existing legal framework. New legislation will be needed when new applications become widespread and necessary fallback procedures are defined.

There is a need to recognise the limitations of biometrics. The main reason for introducing biometric systems is to increase overall security. However, biometric identification is not perfect – it is never 100% certain, it is vulnerable to errors and it can be ‘spoofed’. Decision-makers need to understand the level of security guaranteed through the use of biometric systems and the difference that can exist between the perception and the reality of the sense of security provided. The biometric system is only one part of an overall identification or authentication process, and the other parts of that process will play an equal role in determining its effectiveness.

The above conclusions lead to the following recommendations:

  1. The purpose of each biometric application should be clearly defined. The use of biometrics may implicitly challenge the existing trust model between citizen and state since it reduces the scope for privacy and anonymity of citizens. Clarity of purpose is needed to avoid ‘function creep’ and false expectations about what biometrics can achieve. Such clarity is particularly needed to ensure user acceptance.
  2. The use of biometrics to enhance privacy. Biometrics raise fears related to privacy, best expressed by the term ‘surveillance society’, but they also have the potential to enhance privacy as they allow authentication without necessarily revealing a person’s identity. In addition, by using multiple biometric features it is possible to maintain related personal information segregated and thus limit the erosion of privacy through the linkage of separate sets of data. The more policy measures are able to encourage the use of biometrics toenhance privacy, the more biometrics will be acceptable to the public at large.
  3. The emergence of a vibrant European biometrics industry. The large-scale introduction of biometric passports in Europe provides Member States with a unique opportunity to ensure that these have a positive impact, and that they enable the creation a vibrant European industry sector. Two conditions would appear to be necessary for this to happen. Firstly, the creation of a demand market based on wide user acceptance, by clearly setting out the purpose and providing appropriate safeguards for privacy and data protection. Secondly, the fostering of a competitive supply market for biometrics. This is unlikely to emerge by itself and will need kick-starting by governments – in their role as launch customers, not as regulators.
  4. Fallback procedures. Since biometric systems are neither completely accurate nor accessible to all, fallback procedures will be needed. In the case of physical access systems (e.g. border control) skilled human operators need to be available to deal with people that are rightly or wrongly rejected. Whatever the application, whether in the private or public domain, the fallback procedures should be balanced – neither less secure, nor stigmatised. People with unreadable fingerprints, for example, have the same need for dignity and security as others.
  5. Areas for Future research. The study has revealed several areas where further data and research is needed. These include:

- Research and Technological development. 
Biometric technologies provide a strong mechanism for authentication of identity. Biometrics cannot be lost or stolen, although they can be copied, and they cannot be revoked. However, the technology is still under development. Technical interoperability and a lack of widely accepted standards, as well as performance and integrity of biometric data are major challenges that need to be addressed.

- Multimodal biometric systems. 
Multimodal systems are those which combine more than one biometric identifier. For example, it is currently planned to use face and fingerprints in EU border control systems. Research initiatives have been launched on the application of multimodal biometrics in mobile communications (e.g. mobile telephones and other devices). However researchers need more test data to work with and there is still much work to be done.

– Large-scale field trials.
So far, empirical data on the real-time large-scale implementation of biometric identification involving a heterogeneous population is limited. Field trials will have to be conducted to fill this gap. Such trials could also provide realistic cost-benefit data. Moreover, there is a need to exchange best practice and to harmonise Member State initiatives. The European Commission’s Directorate General for Information Society and Media has taken some initiatives in this regard.

Full report – 166 pages – 2.5 Mb

By the European Commission