Paris. Brussels. San Bernadino. Ongoing high-profile terrorist attacks and
continuing immigration pressure has Americans asking: how can our nation open
its arms to those who want to pursue a life of liberty while keeping out the
It’s a complicated, multi-tiered proposition dependent upon a mix of human
and technological vigilance. At the core of the technology conversation is
something called biometrics.
For those who’ve never heard of the term before, it boils down to an
individual’s physical characteristics, such as a fingerprint, being
captured electronically and stored in a database for cross-referencing to
verify his or her identity. The $15 billion global biometrics technology
market is huge, and growing fast, as more people comprehend the potential of
biometrics to make their lives easier.
Technology is driving acceptance, as the old days of an individual having
their fingers scrubbed clean, then dipped in heavy, wet ink before being
forced hard onto a piece of paper are long gone. Nowadays, electronic capture
is easy and mobile thanks to technical advances like ultra-thin, light
emitting sensor (LES) film.
Our government understands the effectiveness of biometrics, as military, law
enforcement, and border patrol now utilize lightweight, handheld mobile
fingerprint scanners for fast, reliable scans of individuals’ fingers in
any type of environmental conditions, whether they be dusty deserts or snowy
mountainous regions. When run through an online database, these electronic
fingerprints enable officials to determine the individuals’ identities
instantly and detain them if necessary, processing dozens or even hundreds
quickly and efficiently in the field without the need for transportation to a
Just days after the San Bernadino attack, biometrics were used by the U.S.
Border Patrol to identify and arrest three Middle Eastern men in an Arizona
town 30 miles from the Mexican border.
Fingerprint scanning is also being used to provide closure for families
who’ve lost loved ones. Mobile biometric devices were used to quickly
identify those killed in the San Bernadino attack, much in the same way as
they are used in identifying victims of disasters such as the 162 passengers
who perished in the AirAsia crash in December of 2014 (after nearly a week
underwater) and the September 2015 Mecca stampede killing over 700 people.
Beyond use by the U.S. government, the concept of biometrics as a part of
everyday life is making inroads; for example, some airlines are testing
biometrics-enhanced ticketing and screening processes, and even some sports
stadiums are incorporating biometrics into access protocols. Biometrics are
also popping-up in a multitude of uses in banking and healthcare, and
Androids and iPhones now deploy fingerprint biometrics as a method of
As mobile biometric fingerprinting becomes more commonplace in the U.S.,
issues of concern are rising around issues of privacy and reliability.
Technology is quickly addressing the latter, with advances like LES film
leading to virtually eliminating the ability to “spoof” a fingerprint
(let alone ten), while conversations continue about addressing the need to
protect stored biometric information and establish standards for its use.
At a 2015 Biometrics Institute summit in Washington, D.C., government,
business, science, industry and human rights leaders from across the globe
discussed how security and privacy can coexist in the face of the increased
use of biometric identity systems in all aspects of our lives, with debates
centering on what rights do individuals have to their biometric information.
Globally, other countries do not have the same level of privacy concerns as
we do here in the U.S. This has led to a much faster acceptance of biometrics
and wider uses in citizens’ lives. In Pakistan, mobile biometric devices
are part of the country’s ongoing efforts to rebuild their crumbling
education system by ensuring real-time teacher attendance monitoring in rural
schools. In Brazil, biometrics are being used to register voters in an effort
to ensure security and reduce potential for fraud while moving toward
developing convenient, mobile voter ID systems to reach rural areas.
Back here at home, using fingerprint biometrics technology to register voters
(and to actually vote) is unlikely to be adopted anytime soon despite its
reliability, ease-of-use, and fraud protection, not to mention its potential
to squash the nationwide controversy of voter ID laws making headlines.
Similarly, a general consensus of the use of biometrics to help fight
terrorism and secure our borders will be hard to reach as backlash continues
to hamstring nationwide fingerprinting efforts and creation of a national
While business, government, and human rights organizations continue to work
through the nuts and bolts of the human vigilance part of the equation, a
fully functioning, reliable, easy-to-use biometrics technology baseline is
already in place.
It’s up to us to decide whether or not we want to use it.