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The last thing they have: can biometric tech help the homeless, and will they trust it?

The last thing they have: can biometric tech help the homeless, and will they trust it?

Homelessness is not a single problem, but a confluence of many social issues and challenges – not the least of which is safe and reliable identification. Most of us take ID for granted, but thousands of people across Canada live for years without government ID, which puts limits on how, where and when they can receive support or access critical services like banking and job opportunities. Replacement IDs cost money and often come with complicated requirements. Several shelters and organizations have dabbled in biometrics as a possible solution. But larger initiatives have not yet taken hold.

There are reasons for this, says Myra Hewson, who works as a nurse providing low-barrier care at Toronto’s Street Health. She says those without a permanent address have vulnerabilities that go beyond standard data privacy issues, and that biometrics still present significant risks.

“What if they have a warrant?” says Hewson, highlighting potential misuse by the justice system as a particular concern for anyone who might not be on the best terms with law enforcement. Access is a problem for many newcomers or seniors who are unfamiliar with technology portals, she says, and – as is often the case in institutional use cases of biometrics – questions about data sharing and ownership haunt the conversation.

“Who is the holder of these fingerprints,” she says. “Who will govern the data? Who has the ability to access it?”

Past initiatives show potential, but there are trust issues

A few projects across Canada have tried to find answers to these questions in models focused on financial inclusion. One of the more established local ventures in Canada is Four Directions Financial, a banking project led by Edmonton, Alberta’s ATB Financial and Boyle Street Community Services. Founded in 2017 as a way to provide the so-called underbanked with easier access to financial services through the use of biometrics, Four Directions was the first of its kind – and remains one of the only Canadian initiatives to leverage biometric technology in the service of financial inclusion for the homeless.

The Four Directions Financial model spurred a May 2021 report by the Saint John Community Loan Fund and New Brunswick Social Pediatrics, submitted to the province’s Office of Consumer Affairs, exploring the potential of biometric banking in the maritime provinces. The report, “Eyeing the ID: Bio-metric (sic) Banking for Saint John”, identifies biometrics as one of the top three potential ways to mitigate barriers to acquiring and using ID that are hindering financial inclusion. Based on a survey of 157 people from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, it says reducing barriers caused by ID requirements could improve financial inclusion and access to services in the region. “The technology and training required to implement biometric technology make it a more costly option than the others,” says the report. “But once it is established, the ongoing delivery costs would be manageable.”

Drop-in centers in Calgary and predictive biometrics in London

Banking, of course, is not the only application for biometrics. A CBC report from 2018 details how a Calgary drop-in center using a fingerprint-based biometric ID system tested a pivot to facial recognition, to address concerns with fingerprints such as frost-damaged prints and anxiety associated with the procedure for those with mental illness or past arrests.

The project, which was implemented by Vancouver firm Sierra Systems, used Microsoft’s facial recognition API and cloud storage, and was nominated for a Microsoft IMPACT award for citizenship and community. But the same concerns about data privacy and exceptional situations that Myra Hewson identified – for instance, when attempting to obtain consent from an intoxicated person – led to the program sputtering out.

As profiled in the University of Southern California’s engineering review, Illumin Magazine, the city of London, Ontario has tested predictive biometrics run through a neural network as a way to calculate the likelihood of chronic homelessness. The algorithm calculates demographic and service usage data such as frequency and duration of shelter visits, to determine whether a person is at risk of suffering chronic homelessness within six months. Again, privacy and security are  a paramount concern; a city blog about the project says that the government “went to extreme lengths to safeguard the privacy and information security of the data and this system,” including rules around explicit consent. London’s initiative also factors in communication, providing a breakdown of steps it took to reach its prediction in a way that is easily understood by the end user.

Other programs in other places have explored biometric lockboxes for unhoused people, and blockchain-based digital ID. There are boards on Github built around the question of decentralized digital ID for the homeless. And in October 2023, the Bank of Canada issued a report titled “Redefining Financial Inclusion for a Digital Age: Implications for a Central Bank Digital Currency,” which highlights “important areas of research and design consideration for new digital payment products and services, specifically for central banks contemplating the introduction of a central bank digital currency.”

“We identify barriers that rural populations, Indigenous communities, Canadians with low incomes and persons with disabilities face in using financial products,” says the report. “We also note a deficiency in the current research and payment offerings for those with cognitive accessibility challenges. With these findings, we aim to build awareness of the inequities and challenges present in the current payments system and motivate existing financial technology providers to move toward offering more-inclusive products and services.”

All of which is to say, the interest in awareness of biometric tools and systems is there. Academics, social workers and governments can see the benefits of biometrics in providing reliable identification without the need for cards that can be lost or stolen.

But when it comes to the world’s most vulnerable citizens, risk is often amplified, and technological solutions can seem like a flimsy panacea when existing, old-fashioned pen-and-paper services are still in dire need of attention and funding. For Myra Hewson, there is still ample work to be done on fraud prevention measures before she’ll consider biometric tools. Even if guaranteed the highest level of security, there is too much at stake for her clients to allow even a sliver of doubt.

“For some of these people,” she says, “the last thing they have is their identity.”

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