The Ethical Issues of Biometric Technology

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There has been an increasing interest not only by the public but also by private domains in generating quick and accurate means that offer better assurances regarding individual identity in daily activities. There are three common approaches to security models applied in authentication namely, use of passwords, identity cards, and biometrics. In the contemporary world, organizations have embraced biometrics as the ultimate proof in identifying the individuals they are dealing with (Sayoud, 2011). While there is an increase in the prevalence use of biometrics globally, there also occurs an increase in risks associated with privacy and security due to the augmenting gathering, use, disclosure, as well as biometric data retention. These greatly influences the people's trust in biometric systems including the involved organizations.

            This paper focuses on the ethical issues and privacy regarding the use of biometric technology. The paper also evaluates a group of technologies referred to as biometric encryption whereby privacy is deliberated as a basic functionality in systems of biometric. The research generates a critical analysis of biometrics including profiling. According to Cantore (n.d), biometric and profiling are vulnerable to various ethical issues regarding privacy and democracy, especially when dealing with people's biological as well as behavioral data. The paper will start by describing the first and second generations of biometric technology, the uses of biometrics in various contexts will also be highlighted including ethical concerns with respect to privacy and storage of the collected data and possible solutions. The increased prevalence use of biometric technology in the world has led to an increase in ethical concerns regarding privacy, use, disclosure, and storage of biometric data.

                                           First and Second Generation Biometrics

            In the first generation of biometric technology, fingerprints were majorly used for authenticating individuals in both law enforcement agencies and in forensics. Although in the last two decades fingerprints were used in criminal conviction by agencies of law enforcement, Automatic Fingerprint Identification Systems (AFIS) did not exist. Due to restricted performance as well as the absence of interconnectivity of these systems, they were referred to as zeroth generation biometric systems. During the 1990s, the Immigration and Neutralization Service Accelerated Service System (INSPASS) was one of the biometric systems installed at some U.S main airports which was later abandoned because it had a limited enrollment of users as well as a weak performance (Sutrop & Laas-Mikko, 2012). The first generation biometric systems describe the systems which were commonly used during the 1990s. These systems included various fingerprints, iris, including systems of face recognition that were applied in a broad scope of commercial and civilian technologies. The specific examples of the common systems of the first generation were the US-VISIT system which used thumbprints, the Privium system which used the iris and SmartGate which used face identification.

            The continuous improvement in sensory technologies, computational pace, working environment as well as storage capacities over some few years ago have stimulated the advancement and use of the systems of first generation biometrics. This has assisted in permeating biometric authentication in the day to day activities. These improvements have facilitated the advancement of pace and accuracy based on fingerprint matching not only in forensic but also in law enforcement agencies (Sutrop & Laas-Mikko, 2012). For instance, the IAFIS system of FBI contains 10 print images of fingerprints which can handle about 80,000 searches in a day. However, NIST has put forward various drawbacks to the state-of-the-art algorithms of fingerprint matching. Besides poor interoperability, the systems of the first generation are more vulnerable to spoofing and encounter more challenges generating security of templates and privacy from complex invasions. Generally, the limitations of the systems of the first generation include unattainable performance, insecurity as well as lack of privacy.


second generation biometrics systems have been deployed to encounter the challenges of first generation biometrics in identifying individuals. These challenges can be categorized into two approaches: the engineering approach, which emphasizes on challenges of precision, security, pace, ergonomics, including the application scope; social approach challenges such as policies of privacy protection, ethical including health issues, as well as biases. Sutrop & Laas-Mikko (2012) claim that unlike the first generation biometrics, the second generation of biometric technology emphasize on patterns of behavior which are aimed at anticipating apprehensive behavior or aggressive aims. Whereas the gathering of biometric characteristics for individual identification can be seen by the individual, taking biometric characteristics from a distance cannot be realized by the person. The scope of U.S. including the projects in Europe based on the second generation biometrics, reveals that data subjects may not be aware during data processing relating to them, and if patterns of behavior are interpreted with lack of knowledge of subjects, risks of segregation as well as stigmatization may occur. Therefore, the second generation biometrics come along with some ethical issues in addition to integrity, privacy, including protection of data. It further underscores the significance of informed consent principle, and this is aimed at upholding the public trust (Sutrop & Laas-Mikko, 2012).

Uses of Biometrics

            According to Aranuwa and Ogunniye (2010), biometric technology is deployed in a wide scope of applications where high-quality security standards are required. This technology makes operations, transactions as well as daily activities not only safer but also convenient. First, biometric technology is deployed in biometric security since it has been realized that that the old methods of security are not effective in protecting some significant aspects. Thanks to the accessibility of biometric technology in the contemporary society because it has brought about improvement in security and protection (Aranuwa and Ogunniye 2010). For instance, in the UK, most cars use biometric security ranging from voice recognition to unlocking the car. Secondly, biometric technology is used in border control and airports. One of the objectives of airports all over the world is to smoothen the journey via airport terminals. In most international airports of the world, biometric technology has been used in verifying passenger identities. The commonly used biometric approach in controlling immigration in most airports is iris recognition. Here, the passenger's iris and face are captured by a care and stored in an international database which generates a quick and accurate identification during traveling. This makes work easier art the ports of travel due to the high number of people who travel daily. It also ensures that security and safety are maintained at the highest level.

            Moreover, this technology is deployed in monitoring time and attendance in workforce management. In most organizations globally, employees don't embrace accurate time and attendance in their activities. The American Payroll Association study reveals that on average, workers steal about five hours in a week, which translates to one and half months leave in a year (Cavoukian, Chibba & Stoianov, 2012). To curb this challenge, organizations have put in place biometric time clocks on their premises. This system recognizes employees in regard to physiological as well behavioral features especially faces fingerprints and irises. Government parastatals are also embracing biometric technology to ensure timely attendance of employees including accurate calculations of payrolls. Fourthly, biometric technology is widely deployed by law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and Interpol to investigate criminals. In the contemporary world, biometrics is widely embraced in identifying criminals. For example, the Chinese police in 2008, adopted ABIS solution which would allow the forensic fingerprint examiners to evaluate inmate identities for any correspondence in the database. Also, this technology is utilized in managing jails and prisons to secure and safeguard prisoner identities (Manders-Huits, 2008).

            Additionally, biometric technology has been used by both organizations and individuals in controlling access. Manders-Huits (2008) elucidate that due to the insufficiency of traditional authentication techniques such as passwords for personal identification, biometrics are used in controlling access as well as Single Sign On (SSO). In most parts of the world, biometrics are used for controlling home access, vehicle access authentication as well as SSO. Besides, biometric technology is deployed in transaction authentication in banking. As banks move from analog to digitally-based, financial institutions are embracing biometrics to advance the identity management of the customers and employees with an objective of curbing fraud, increasing transaction security as well as enhancing the convenience of customers. Finally, biometric technology has been used in healthcare to enhance security and convenience. In the clinical setting, health records are among the most significant personal documents. Healthcare practitioners mostly require a quick access to the records, hence they should be accurate.

Ethical Issues Relating to Privacy and Storage of Data

            Despite the fact that biometric has a wide scope of application, the transformation to biometric-based security poses great threats regarding privacy and security. The deployment of biometric system is anticipated to aid in responding to the augmenting safety threats. However, there are fears that in the absence of necessary regulations, it will lead to risks of violating basic rights, for instance, privacy and dignity (Willoughby, 2017). Also, biometric application poses issues regarding the human body's integrity. Scholars have revealed that the manner in which biometric technology uses the body for the purpose of identification needs a reconceptualization with respect bodily integrity.  For instance, taking fingerprints may not be regarded as an abuse of bodily integrity when considering it from the perspective of medical ethics. However, from a political and moral perspective, this entails a violation of bodily integrity. "What takes place here is the inscription of the individual's body with identity/-fiers  that is achieved by the combination of finger-print-taking, storage in the central database, and the coupling with biometric sensing equipment and automated searches," (Sutrop, 2010).

            The moral argument engrossing biometric technology lays emphasis on the concept privacy is conceived as a need, circumstance, or respecting human integrity, by perceiving it either as generating its worth intrinsically or from other sources. The concept of privacy in seen from the perception of control. "Privacy is the claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others," (Crompton 2004). While the majority of ethicists view privacy as being threatened by biometrics, some claim that biometrics fosters privacy by generating sturdier identification. Sutrop (2010) argue that high privacy levels are undesirable because the contemporary societies reveal high mobility levels, anonymity, which result in an increase in crime, fraud including evasion of tax. Therefore biometric data about individuals should be accessible to the government so that the adverse consequences of mobility and anonymity are curbed.

            Besides, some critics maintain that informed consent is one of the ethical issues in biometric technology. Wickins (2017) maintains that any individual who is required to submit any form of biometric data should be informed of the anticipated hazards, should have the capacity of understanding the effects that may accrue from their actions and in case of any risk of harm the individual should not consent to such action. The ethical arguments about informed consent differ greatly with medical ethics whereby autonomy and inviolability of the informed consent of individuals are arrayed in different global declarations.

Possible Solutions to Biometric Ethical Issues

            Due to increase in ethical concerns regarding biometric technologies, various solutions aimed at maintaining the privacy of storage and retention of collected data have been put in place. The data is protected through biometric encryption (BE) whereby no biometric image storage while the undetectable templates from various applications can't be linked.  The BE comprises three basic privacy policies which include: minimization of data to unauthorized secondary uses, maximum control of data usage, and improved security by enhancing authentication, transmission of data, as well as advanced data security (Manoria et al., 2011). Biometric technologies are usually invasive because the devices interact unswervingly with the individual’s body to take individual-specific information which is regarded as privileged. Stigmatization that emanates from criminal and forensic inquiries impacts user acceptance of biometric systems. The privileged data can be used to segregate users during employment or purposes of benefits.

            Moreover, the use of biometric systems by various states to secure their borders has led to the adoption of new policies including security measures which often hamper privacy protection policies. According to Crompton (2004), the protection of electronic data is facilitated by technical standards which back up the interoperability and maintain a high level of security and privacy. The formulation of policies including the deployment of biometric systems affects privacy in various ways. In regard to legal and ethical issues, various commissioners of privacy and protection of data have come up with new policies for deploying and using biometric technologies both in public and private organizations. There is an increasing concern about the deployment of biometric technologies and the debate on standard policies which generate solutions to fundamental ethical concerns. These policies emphasize on privacy, autonomy, informed consent, trust, equality and liberty, values which must be made accessible to all individuals in a democracy.


            Indubitably, biometric technologies generate accurate and rapid means of identifying individuals, hence it fosters privacy as well as security. These technologies have evolved over time giving rise to the current second generation of biometrics. Unlike the first generation biometrics, the second generation of biometric technology emphasize on patterns of behavior which are aimed at anticipating apprehensive behavior or aggressive aims. In the contemporary society that is digital-driven, it is likely that biometrics will be embraced in all aspects of life regarding systems security and authentication, both in public and private organizations. While there is an increase in the prevalence use of biometrics globally, there also occurs an increase in risks associated with privacy and security due to the augmenting gathering, use, disclosure, as well as biometric data retention.  An increasing concern about the deployment of biometric technologies and the debate on standard policies generate solutions to fundamental ethical issues such as privacy and the informed consent of individuals.


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September 04, 2023

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