- A machine scanning one’s eyes to verify their identity before they enter a facility
- A machine scanning one’s fingerprints at a police station
- Full body scans at the airport, and so on…
These are examples of what you call “biometrics.” Nowadays, biometrics is among the hot topics that surround technology. However, many questions remain: Is biometrics ethical? Is it something that can be used responsibly, for the sake of human rights? And will migrants need to be subject to this technology?
That’s where the question of human rights comes into play. Despite biometrics’ promises to make countries and their citizens safer, they can lead to humiliating and even devastating consequences. But is there a way for biometrics to be human-rights-approved?
This overview will delve deep into the current conversations that surround biometrics and their legitimacy when it comes to human rights.
How did we get here?
Over recent years, security concerns have been a priority, since the rise in terrorism, riots, and other forms of chaos. And it’s of these concerns that there is now talk of biometric technology.
- Photographic images, and
- Other forms of DNA
Biometrics is the most desired in governmental institutions and select businesses. This technology is often used for security purposes like identity verification, secure checks, etc. Biometric technology is also used in the justice system when booking criminals and verifying inmates.
Rather than relying on traditional verification methods like handwritten signatures and remembering codes and passwords, the use of biometrics keeps one’s information unique and authentic.
Now, while advocates see biometrics as enhancing individual privacy, others may voice concerns about it delving into one’s privacy. In other words, challengers may see biometrics as invading one’s privacy.
According to Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, people have a right to privacy, regardless of age, sex, nationality, and immigration status. As one can tell, some people might view biometrics as violating that basic human right.
- Human data should be obtained lawfully.
- Human data should be kept safely and securely.
- Human data should be up-to-date and accurate at all times.
- Human data must be used for the original purpose specified.
If biometrics can do all four of these, then biometrics can actually work out for everyone 100%.
The weaknesses in full scope
- Biometrics, at face value, already has a lack of reliability amongst skeptics. Although there have been effective biometrics tools like “contactless” RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips (which are used by private consumer companies to track inventories of consumer goods, and can be read from certain distances), they’re not encrypted. Thus, these chips can be easily read by bad actors.
- Second, biometrics is not 100% accurate. Like any other form of technology, it would take a lot more work to make biometrics flawless in databases. Plus, updating this technology would be necessary in order for there to be “accuracy.” Without modifications and updates, accuracy in biometrics is questionable.
- Third, critics point out a phenomenon called “function creep.” This refers to the idea that data can be used in a way that’s not foreseen nor consented to at the time of data collection. Referring back to the RFID chips, not only are they unencrypted, but they also allow people to read people’s data and collect them without anyone’s knowledge. That can be scary since it’s no different than traditional identity theft. Function creep can also happen in government institutions if biometrics isn’t used properly. With law enforcement, national immigration, and other public and private databases (e.g., airlines) collecting and exchanging data every day, having a function creep among all of it can lead to data theft and database infiltration.
- Fourth, what if data protection laws aren’t enforced? Although there are countries like Europe that have data protection initiatives like the European Union (EU) with its Data Protection Directive (95/46 EC), the U.S., however, seems to have weaker laws. Despite its own flaws, the U.S. was able to devise a “safe harbor” framework, meaning that a non-regulated list of U.S. companies (which have put security procedures in place when it comes to handling sensitive data) must comply with the directive. However, even with safeguards in place, there’s no guarantee that data protection can be breached.
As one can tell, these weaknesses raise flags on how safe and accurate biometrics are as of right now. It’s obvious that biometrics need more work, in order for consumer trust can come to fruition.
Speaking of consumers, there is also the concern with migrants – people who travel from country to country.
What about migrants?
According to the World Migration Report of 2020, there were around 281 million international migrants worldwide – that’s 3.6% of the world’s population. Despite this statistic, what would biometrics meet for migrants?
If someone was to travel to a different country – whether for vacation, business reasons, or to move to a new home – they might be subject to providing human data to prove their identity. But with that said, biometrics can lead to discriminatory actions against migrants, whether intentional or unintentional. This can especially be a problem, if implemented in places like the U.S., where illegal immigration is commonplace, along with ethnic discrimination.
- At airports, to prevent another 9/11-related attack like the 2001 terrorist attack in the U.S., there have been drastic security measures like full-body scans have been implemented. However, time and time again, these security measures were questioned by the public, due to the concern that they can violate the human right to privacy. Now, with biometrics on the table, there’s a heightened concern – Would biometrics (like surrendering fingerprints, hand images, etc.) be the next form of technology to violate people’s privacy at the airport?
- Among migrants, there might be people looking for asylum to escape tragedy and violence in their home country. While biometrics might help to prove who they are, it can still hurt them in other ways. The most negative effect that using biometrics can bring is the very act of collecting human data in the first place. Some migrants might perceive that as getting their “mugshots” as if they were criminals. And, with the trauma of leaving their home country already in their minds, being checked for human data and identification can lead to further emotional scarring.
- Also, among migrants, there might be those who may have medical limitations or restrictions, which can make the use of biometrics impossible. This can be especially problematic when it comes to the elderly and the vulnerable.
- Finally, there’s the issue with function creep once again. Whether a migrant is looking for temporary residence or permanent, biometrics takes into account identity cards and multipurpose entitlement cards, as authorities collect human data. As mentioned, tools like RFIDs aren’t encrypted, meaning that anyone can read the data without anyone knowing.
What’s in store for the future?
So, how does biometrics hold up for the future?
First and foremost: there needs to be a consideration for human rights. When working with biometrics, users and companies should be aware of any limitations that the technology might pose, and rectify them as soon as possible.
- First, consider a person’s freedom of movement when using biometric documents. In that case, proportionality is important, and it requires collecting information that’s relevant, adequate, relevant, and legitimate.
- Second, there must be a clear distinction between illegals and clandestine migrants. While it’s important to prevent illegal migrants from coming into a country, it’s also important to not have a blanket system that makes every migrant a criminal. That means that policymakers should think about migrants on an individual basis, meaning that they get to know the person, their background, and so on – not basing that person solely on nationality, sex, etc.
- And third, terrorism is still a major issue in the eyes of so many that have either been affected by it or have seen it from the sidelines. In that case, immigration reform and anti-terrorism must be dealt with as two separate issues. When it comes to immigration reform, it’s important to keep human rights in mind, even if biometrics are being used. As for anti-terrorism, it’s important to protect citizens and migrants from bad actors, smugglers, traffickers, and so on. Protection from criminals should also be kept in mind when using biometrics.
As it stands right now, the idea of biometrics is still up in the air. However, that doesn’t mean that developments have halted this idea. Despite its setbacks due to migrant concerns and the human right to privacy, biometrics will continue to make waves when it comes to technology and security.
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