New report predicts boost in biometrics in Europe

Posted on April 01st, 2005

BRUSSELS / EU OBSERVER – Biometric entrance systems at school cafeterias, fingerprint scanners to start car engines or face recognition systems on buses could become an everyday reality for Europeans, a new research paper suggests.

The study, ‘Biometrics at the Frontiers: Assessing the impact on society’, was conducted by the European Commission and published on Wednesday, 30 March.

It argues that EU policy-makers should prepare for a boost of biometrics use in everyday life and act now to shape it, referring to both the challenges and potential threats to data abuse and to people’s privacy.

EU member states are set to start introducing biometrics in passports, visas and residence permits from the next year, while some countries have already taken such measures – mainly due to US pressure on visa-free European states to issue biometric passports for security reasons.

Biometrics have predominantly been applied in physical access control (42% of the market), but demand has been growing both for its use in IT applications (25%) and in financial services (15%).

From cafeteria to hospital

The futuristic scenarios portrayed by the study suggest that, by as early as 2015, people will apply new technologies based on biometrics much more intensively in their everyday lives as well as in business, health care and in security services such as border controls.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. Also, people will commonly use digital storage space called virtual residence, where password access is replaced by an iris scanner. Children will play with biometric toys that recognise registered users, while household appliances could also use biometrics to secure access, such as the cooker using hand geometry.On the business side, companies could use a biometric access system to their premises and secure electronic payments enabled by a third party, while customers could use it to access shops. In hospitals, biometrics could be used for accessing electronic health cards or for identity checks in the maternity ward.

American dominance

The study points out that the biometric industry is currently dominated by the US, ‘but Europe’s share is growing rapidly, particularly in banking.’ It says that European policy makers and civil society ‘feel the American pressure and know about America’s mass installation of surveillance technologies’, such as metal detectors, scanners, CCTVs, and other forms of detection, access control and biometric equipment in public places, but they question its real necessity.

‘Common sense pushed people to adopt a critical attitude (that regrettably is hardly echoed in the current legal framework), refusing to accept simple answers about safety and protection when there is little evidence that security technology actually makes us safer,’ the paper argues.

Recent initiatives of the EU governments are expected to boost demand in voice or iris recognition systems, while the use of fingerprints, which is currently a dominant biometric method – is likely to continue as cheaper scanners are bundled with computers.

A fingerprint for a cheeseburger

However, the more frequent use of biometrics is also causing concerns due to possible threats.Aside from question marks over the costs, privacy protection or social exclusion implications, the new trends could presumably lead to significant power accumulation by those in control of biometric data and their failure to protect individuals from their inclination to trade their own privacy.

The document refers to the existing cases of commercial distribution or exchange of people’s biometric data, suggesting ‘Already today, some American firms present their customers the option to make a commodity of their fingerprints in exchange for the faster acquisition of cheeseburgers’.

The authors argue that such choices are portrayed as a casual decision with little or no moral impact, and added ‘it is easy to imagine people providing biometric samples under time pressure, without precaution. The example of the European dancing club which uses biometrics for access control, demonstrates that monetary or other rewards can have a similar effect in making biometric enrolment look trivial.’

By Lucia Kubosova (EU Observer)