The need for dialogue: biometrics are good

September 20, 2016 - 

This is a guest post by David Menzies, a writer and public relations consultant at Innovative Public Relations.

The fact that biometrics – specifically fingerprints and facial recognition – were a large part of quickly identifying and helping to capture the New York City terror bomber, 28-year-old Ahmad Khan Rahami, likely does not surprise anyone involved in this particular market sector. A fingerprint on a pressure cooker, combined with video surveillance footage started the wheels turning and the rest, as they say, is history.

Even as this latest incident is an encouraging example of the successful use of biometrics to identify, track, and apprehend terrorists, it does point out a sticky wicket for the industry: biometrics, for better or worse, are often associated as having a negative connotation.

Nobody in the general public is going to argue against using fingerprint, voice, iris, or facial recognition to catch bad guys. Americans seem to be developing a good understanding of how biometrics can help keep us safe. Travelers especially are becoming more open to sharing their biometric information at places like airports, in large part due to the history of bad guys who’ve flaunted security procedures in such facilities to bring us harm.

This connection to catching bad guys, however, many times clouds the many other things biometrics can do to make our lives easier and safer when you start talking about sharing biometric data and the privacy concerns that brings.

This topic was featured at the recent Biometrics Institute member meeting in Washington, D.C. which was full of engaging presentations, new innovations, and important information on trends in biometric identity technologies and best practices in the government sector.

All the major players were there: the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Biometric Identity Management, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the FBI, among others. There were familiar names from the private sector, some big and some small, as well as some new up-and-coming players.

This solid mix of private and public sector influencers discussed the bright future of biometrics as well as some of the roadblocks to increasing their use during several presentations as well as an engaging panel discussion on facial recognition. Heads nodded in agreement when challenges were highlighted, such as the public fear of having your image captured in public spaces or the misconceptions that all biometric data is retained in some central government database.

Besides, as your average American may think, if I’m not a bad guy, why do I have to share my biometric information? Where are my fingerprints going to be stored, how safe are they, and who is going to use them? Forget about fingerprints: what about facial recognition; are you telling me every time I walk around in public places a camera is grabbing digital images of my face and I’m being cross-referenced against a database of bad guys? What about when I go shopping; are retailers collecting my face and tracking how many times I go into the store, and what I’m shopping for so they can hit me up with online ads when I browse the web?

All these concerns are very real and legitimate, and compounded by the association of biometrics with catching bad guys.

So what can be done to break down public reluctance to sharing biometric data more freely? As pointed out at the Biometrics Institute member meeting, Americans are willingly giving out all sorts of personal information via social media, and much of the time these social media platforms are being accessed via mobile devices that use biometrics like fingerprints to login. Wouldn’t these same people using fingerprints to login and share details about their lives to perfect strangers be predisposed to sharing their biometric data in other aspects of their lives?

It could be argued that this is definitely softening the blow to the concept of providing biometrics for access to benefits, and studies are showing movement toward even more acceptance. For example, a Harris Poll conducted this summer shows promise in the public’s embrace of biometric security, with 62 percent of respondents saying they would feel secure using fingerprint technology in mobile banking.

Research like this is encouraging, but the industry is still fighting news headlines like “Biometrics Are Coming, Along With Serious Security Concerns” and “Biometrics: Who’s Watching You?” among others. From a purely PR perspective, the gatekeepers of information – like overworked and understaffed mainstream media outlets – are more apt to publish stories from sources that are well-researched, thoughtful, and customized to their audiences. If a proactive public education campaign from the biometrics industry contains such stories, news outlets will become better educated about pros and cons and less apt to have knee-jerk reactions to sensationalized claims.

So what strategic messaging should the biometrics industry be bringing to the American public? For starters, advocates might want to pitch the concept of the public being in control of its biometrics, with an industry wanting to work with them, not against them. An overarching issue identified at the Biometrics Institute event seems to revolve around biometric data capture clashing with Americans’ culture of consent. As previously mentioned, if you tell me I can travel more safely (and maybe even cut a long airport line) by giving up my fingerprints, I may take you up on it. But it’s because you asked me to give it to you, to opt-in instead of you just taking my biometric information without my permission. And as you ask me for my biometric data, tell me how you’re going to keep me informed about how it’s being used and when it’s being accessed.

The more that government agencies, private companies, and industry advocates can advance this concept with their stakeholders in their spheres of influence the more constructive the dialogue and the more apt we are to address privacy concerns within the framework of providing innovative biometric solutions.

DISCLAIMER: BiometricUpdate.com blogs are submitted content. The views expressed in this blog are that of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BiometricUpdate.com.

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About David Menzies

David Menzies is a writer and public relations consultant specializing in technologies like biometrics which positively impact our society.