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Biometrics: the legal challenge

Plenty of hurdles left to be jumped

One of the key drivers behind the push to take up biometric technologies is that governments are beginning to mandate that biometric identifiers such as facial images and fingerprints be used in official documents, including passports. And biometrics is also seen as essential for the provision of e-government services to citizens to ensure accurate authentication to prevent fraud.

To a lesser extent, corporations are testing the application of biometrics to their workplaces in order to improve the security of their operations. Issues within business include the need to improve the security of workplaces, from improving hiring procedures to securing access control to their premises.

But legal challenges remain to the use of biometric technologies by both public institutions and businesses. In Europe, the most pressing legal challenges are in the area of conforming to privacy and data protection requirements. As part of its remit, the European BioSec consortium is working to develop a legal framework for the use of biometric technologies that ensures full compliance with European regulations in the area of data protection.

Legal issues include the purpose to which information about individuals is collected and how it can then be used, the ability to access information and redress inaccuracies, and providing robust enough security so that persons cannot have their information compromised, especially during enrolment in biometric schemes and during transmission of data over public networks. Methods of storing biometric templates remain a thorny issue, especially as RFID chips are being proposed for individuals to carry their information on smart cards, and challenges such as fallback procedures in the face of failure in automatic processing methods need to be addressed.

Although many biometric trials have been conducted around the world, there are as yet few large-scale schemes in full operation. And some of the pilots that have been conducted have actually been found to be illegal and in contravention of users’ rights. For example, the French data protection agency ruled in 2004 that the use of biometrics stored on physical devices for controlling physical access to the secured areas in Paris airports was in proportion with the use for which the data was collected, but that using the same information for time and attendance control in the workplace was in contravention of its data protection laws. Legal challenges have also been brought to light in the use of biometrics in ID cards for foreign residents, the argument being that this could lead to specific groups being singled out and targeted.

Another legal challenge is in ensuring that citizens have the right to correct information held on them, especially as biometrics holds so much promise for identification and authentication purposes. Identity theft is a growing problem and, although the majority of such theft is still conducted using offline methods, the incidence of online identity theft is growing. Without adequate means of redress, the fear remains that owners of data could conceivably never be able to take back control of their identities should their biometric data fall into the wrong hands.

Further details regarding the legal issues in the use of biometrics can be found at BioSec’s website at Halfway through its work, BioSec has already identified a number of recommendations for overcoming the legal challenges that are involved, in the area of data protection as well as in such areas as certification.

It is also advanced in its work in developing technological answers to some of the most pressing legal challenges, such as the development of 3D biometrics and aliveness detection technologies to prevent spoofing to lessen the possibility of fraud and identity theft. Issues remain to be resolved, but the work being done in Europe looks set to pave the way for international acceptability and usability of biometric technologies for a wide range of beneficial applications.


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