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The Biometric Threat

The Biometric Threat

As with so many other convenient technologies, the world is underestimating the risks associated with biometric identification systems. India has learned about those risks the hard way – and should serve as a cautionary tale to the governments and corporations seeking to expand the use of these technologies.

NEW DELHI – Around the world, governments are succumbing to the allure of biometric identification systems. To some extent, this may be inevitable, given the burden of demands and expectations placed on modern states. But no one should underestimate the risks these technologies pose.

Biometric identification systems use individuals’ unique intrinsic physical characteristics – fingerprints or handprints, facial patterns, voices, irises, vein maps, or even brain waves – to verify their identity. Governments have applied the technology to verify passports and visas, identify and track security threats, and, more recently, to ensure that public benefits are correctly distributed.

Private companies, too, have embraced biometric identification systems. Smartphones use fingerprints and facial recognition to determine when to “unlock.” Rather than entering different passwords for different services – including financial services – users simply place their finger on a button on their phone or gaze into its camera lens.

It is certainly convenient. And, at first glance, it might seem more secure: someone might be able to find out your password, but how could they replicate your essential biological features?

But, as with so many other convenient technologies, we tend to underestimate the risks associated with biometric identification systems. India has learned about them the hard way, as it has expanded its scheme to issue residents a “unique identification number,” or Aadhaar, linked to their biometrics.

Originally, the Aadhaar program’s primary goal was to manage government benefits and eliminate “ghost beneficiaries” of public subsidies.

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