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Biometrics tech far, far ahead of public understanding—intelligence insider

Categories Biometric R&D  |  Biometrics News  |  Surveillance

Privacy rights groups call for ‘day of action’ to ban facial recognition at all schools

In the same week that an analyst from a secretive government contractor warned that fear is informing debate about biometrics, a Forbes.com expose about that same contractor alleges it has built a tool capable of taking literal fingerprints from social media posts.

The analyst is Duane Blackburn, who studies scientific and technical, or S&T, policy for the Mitre Corp. Blackburn, and an interview published by an armed forces communications and electronics association, said fair and effective biometrics policies are being stymied by fear and ignorance.

Mitre is a black box of a company, researching and developing advanced information tools for the U.S. military and many of the nation’s most powerful three-initial agencies.

The 61-year-old non-profit, according to Forbes research, began as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology information-sciences spinout to manage the nation’s first air defense network, finished by MIT in 1958.

Forbes reporting, significantly supported by Freedom of Information Act filings, outlines major breakthroughs today that are taken for granted, including development of the Airborne Warning and Communications System, or AWACS, and the Traffic Collision Avoidance System used in commercial aviation.

Mitre in June signed a $16.3 million contract with the Centers for Disease Control to create an “enduring” capability to contain COVID-19. In March, the Department of Homeland Security, paid Mitre to energize and guide local and state coronavirus responses, treating the disease almost as if it is a weapon of mass destruction.

Given Mitre’s history, it is unusual for an analyst to talk publicly about a controversial technology much less to invite vigorous debate about its privacy implications.

For instance, the association (known as AFCEA) writes that the field of biometrics has advanced greatly, but that “privacy policies and laws have remained untouched for generations.”

The association quotes Blackburn’s response: “Frankly, something needs to be done.” It is a sentiment from someone within the intelligence community that commands a certain degree of attention.

He said that how the public views biometrics, particularly facial recognition, is far removed from how practitioners view it. He cites fairly esoteric concepts, like the Dunning-Kruger Effect (knowing just enough to be dangerous) and confirmation bias (seeing what one wants to see in data) that hold back the public’s useful understanding.

But it is fear of biometrics that Blackburn says is the biggest danger.

Being surveilled in almost any way or having the government know more about private lives are fears that make rational discussion difficult — even if governments and businesses were open to meaningful discussions with the surveilled.

He said misinformation and false information is flowing freely right now, and that dynamic will not serve anyone in terms of using biometrics in ways that a consensus of Americans can agree is safe and respectful.

Remarkably, Blackburn does not put his thumb on the scale, suggesting people are better off in some way trusting rather than knowing. It is an open question, however, if he will volunteer to lead the discussion about how government agencies apparently can now scan Aunt Pat’s Facebook page for her fingerprints using Mitre technology.

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