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Fear of the Unknown Part III


In Part I we looked at the questions behind adware/spyware. Last week, Part II examined misconceptions related to privacy, and today we look at another technology that has folks looking to the sky for black helicopters.


My bank employs a facial recognition system. When I walk into my local branch the tellers look up, scan me with their eyes and, recognizing my ugly mug, offer pleasantries as I conduct my business. It’s not state-of-the-art, but it is effective – and has been for a few millennia.

Biometric identification is as natural as can be, yet the idea that a machine might be programmed to recognize one individual from another on the basis of unique physical measurements makes many people uncomfortable.

This phenomenon is sometimes known as the “creepy factor,” as it is based more on perception than on fact.

Consider that one of the most common forms of biometric identification, the fingerprint, is most closely associated with criminal behavior. We’ve learned over decades of social programming, courtesy Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s Inspector Lewis Erskine of The F.B.I. (a Quinn Martin Production) and Jack Lord’s Steve McGarrett of Hawaii Five-0 that only people suspected of breaking the law have their fingerprints taken.


Facial geometry is often part of surveillance systems, where digital cameras surreptitiously record the comings and goings of people, silently measuring their features and comparing the results against a database of known criminals and suspects. Very Big Brotherish.

Very creepy.

Retinas and irises, much like fingerprints, provide intricate patterns unique to each of us, and are an excellent form of biometric identification. But we are naturally protective of our eyes and so the prospect of having a laser beam shot into our visual organs is a touch unsettling.

Extra creepy.

But most creepy of all is the specter of these personal physical metrics, the very measure of a man, being captured and stored – and shared with who knows who.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Jailbird, Mary Kathleen O’Looney, head of the fictitious multinational mega-conglomerate RAMJAC Corporation, knew all too well the dangers of having one’s biometric data fall into the wrong hands. She withdrew from society in order to prevent it from happening.

Then again, O’Looney lived up to her moniker, existing as a paranoid bag lady, in constant fear that someone was out to cut off her hands in order to use her biometric data to fake her identity and gain control of the giant company.

Listen, I’m not trying to argue that personal information is invulnerable to misuse or abuse. That is always a risk, but the worry over biometric data seems to imply that certain sorts of information have the magical ability to multiply the risks in manifold ways. As we learned last week, it simply isn’t true. Ninety percent of the incidents of identity fraud occur because of the careless handling of non-digital information. It’s human error (most often our own) that results in bad stuff happening.

The challenge, of course, is for companies that develop or wish to use biometric information to convince the public that it’s safe and offers benefits that will positively affect their lives. It’s a steep challenge, especially when headlines feed on the public’s ignorance and fears.

Other stories, such as the recent disclosure of AOL subscriber search data, while not specific to biometrics, underscore that we often think too highly of technology too much and not enough of our fellow human beings – or is it the reverse? Either way, we can end up outwitting ourselves in an attempt to out-think technology.

I guess living a life of fear and paranoia is one way to deal with the trappings of this modern world. It worked out well for the Luddites.

Share  Posted by Mike Spinney at 11:51 AM | Permalink

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