Governments need to work on passport, National ID reliability

July 20, 2012 - 

No two persons are alike. This fact has long been established through extensive biometric research and study. For this reason, biometric data from an individual is one of the most reliable methods to ascertain their identity. However, recent developments in the tech world have brought to light several issues that could potentially arise with the use of biometrics in identity verification.

Staunch critics of the technology, such as several privacy watchdogs like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are contending that the moment a person’s biometric data becomes machine-readable or encoded into a database it can be easily reproduced. The moment this data is stolen and replicated, its use is subject to the discretion of data thieves.

Another issue being debated is the influx of unreliable biometric technologies, which often incorrectly identify a sample, thereby increasing the incidence of fraud. Pairing unreliable technology with replicated biometric samples irrevocably changes the relationship between a person and their “recorded identity”.

We can reliably predict that border control agencies will suffer the consequences of unreliable biometric technology. Electronic passports are already in wide circulation in Europe and these are armed with a chip that stores the holder’s facial features and other biometric data. In certain airport terminals in the United Kingdom and Australia, facial recognition technologies reported on average a six to eight percent error rate.

It may not seem much on paper, but bear in mind that airport terminals cater to tens of thousands of passengers on a daily basis. This error percentage could easily translate to 1,000 or 2,000 wrongly identified persons per day. The number grows exponentially per annum which raises doubts over the reliability of these so-called state of the art technologies.

Passports and National IDs are the most fraudulently reproduced documents in the world. Relying on these biometrically enhanced documents to verify an individual’s identity gives governments a false sense of security, especially in a world preoccupied with transnational terror risk. Governments need to ensure that they continue to engage the private sector and academia in order to enhance the integrity of these documents and lower their biometric recognition error rate.

With files from Arizona Mosley

What needs to be added to e-passports enhance their reliability?

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.