Are we sleepwalking into a surveillance society?

Although it is undoubtedly useful, personal identity technology could potentially lend itself to the gradual erosion of democracy and support for an authoritarian, protective state.
Geoffrey Hunt | Apr 27 2010 | comment  

Personal Identity technology (ID-tech) is the complex of devices and techniques by which the identity of individuals is established and/or verified. It largely consists of biometric systems, that is, automated technical systems that measure physical human characteristics, some of them dynamically and in real time. The biometric device matches the input sample against a stored template, in order to include or exclude an individual from some action or activity. It is used for verifying who you are (with smart card, username or ID number) or identifying who you are. The data so collected could be used for purposes other than those initially intended.

Fingerprint biometrics were first used at the 2004 Olympic Summer Games, Athens. In the USA, Australia, UK, EU and other countries biometrics are being introduced into passport and visa control. For example, citizens of Brazil have their signature, photo, and 10 rolled fingerprints collected by passport requests. There is a very wide variety of uses e.g. in immigration, customs, ATMs, retail, schools, policing, and intelligence.

While ID-Tech has many uses and conveniences it poses risks to privacy, and most significantly is a technology that could lend itself to government tracking and profiling of individuals on a wider than acceptable scale. In a nutshell the convergence and synchronising of of ID-tech capabilities lends itself to the potential for a ‘Panopticon State’, one that has the policing powers to profile any citizen almost continuously and simultaneously in several dimensions of life, anywhere on the globe.

Both physiological and behavioural traits can be measured and recorded by biometrics systems. The former include fingerprinting, face identity, facial thermogram, hand and footprints, iris, retina, ear canal, DNA, and even personal odour and scent. The latter include computer keystroke dynamics, signature and writing, speech, voice (speaker), and gait. We should also note the potential of RFID (radio frequency identification) implants and body scans.

The benefits of biometric systems

Biometric systems have benefits in the prevention and reduction of crime generally, especially fraud and impersonation, and terrorism. They may also help to solve crime, including ‘cold cases’, and stop the evasion of arrest. It is often claimed, and may be true in many instances, that such systems make for an efficient use of resources (creating new demands, however). In the Super Bowl event of 2001 Florida police used the facial recognition software FaceIt to search the crowd for criminals, and found 19 people on arrest warrants. In the case of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann (2007), the UK police asked visitors at the Resort in Portugal in the two weeks prior to child’s disappearance to provide any photographs of passers-by for use in a biometric facial recognition system. Since 2001 a retinal system has helped apprehend thousands of persons re-entering the wealthy UAE with fraudulent travel documents.

How reliable are they?

There are many issues of technical reliability, and these will raise worries about misidentification. A biometric identification system is expected to be universally applicable, whereas some individuals may not qualify e.g. missing limbs, burns, loss of organ, injury-related changes to gait, and cataract. They must be capable of unique identification, whereas there is always some (very small) margin of fuzziness, especially with family relatives and twins. They should be resistant to the ageing of the individual; but faces etc. change with age, illness, and injury and cosmetic surgery.  There is also the problem of ‘data collection’ being affected by overload and noise, e.g. in a crowd. The efficiency and effectiveness may be in doubt because there will be thresholds of definition (eg, a face at a distance), too slow a response of the device, poor light, and software deficiencies. Biometric data will ‘ideally’ be correlatable with other individual data, whereas these may not be available or be compatible. There are also issues of standardisation and interoperability.

With all these difficulties, and the inevitable dose of human incompetence, one may give a sigh of relief for the future of individual freedom and privacy. However, great efforts and resources are being put into resolving them. Ultimately, developers of such technologies know that their techniques must be socially acceptable, whereas public may reject. We have recently seen that there have been human rights concerns about airport body scans (admittedly, a detection technology rather than an ID one).

The Hydra Effect

In any case, history has shown that technologies will be implemented, sometimes widely, even when there are known difficulties (as well as difficulties that emerge in practice). In this case a fundamental issue is that the identity of the ‘target’ person may be compromised. There is the impersonation issue: the system depends on the individual who is the subject of the test being correctly identified at original enrolment. If a biometric profile is stored for person ‘A’ then that data becomes definitive even if this person is not in fact A. This is fundamental, and has little to do with how sophisticated the technology is, and yet there is a tendency in some quarters to assume that the technology cannot be wrong. But if the ‘input’ is wrong, then the technology will simply process it efficiently.

There are least another two fundamental problems. Firstly, there is the possibility of someone using as a test input what is in fact a hacked copy of the stored template. (Some suggest a way around this is to technically exclude any absolutely ‘perfect match’.) Secondly, an ID device does not ‘know’ what it is looking at. For example, face recognition systems are fooled with a high-quality photograph of a face instead of a real face, so are unsuitable for unsupervised applications such as door access. There is a similar problem with fingerprints and iris patterns.

There are genuine concerns about the security of storage of biometric data.  It should be obvious, but is often forgotten, that a security system is only as trustworthy as the people operating it, from low level operatives to high level authorities. Malicious verifiers may wish to steal templates from the database (although it has been suggested this could discouraged with ‘reverse engineering’ technique). Then there is the possibility of the ‘secondary use’ of biometric data: a user who accesses two systems with the same fingerprint may allow another person to ‘impersonate’ him. Most of these problems, evidently, have to do with human not technological weakness. Technology does not make people better.

You may think that internal hacking is unlikely. Yet, to give one example, in 2007 tens of millions of credit card users were put at risk by financial-transactions company Heartland Payment Systems (USA) when malicious software was installed inside the system.

If dependency on such systems grows then permanent identity loss is not impossible. A system must retain the uniqueness of the trait template unchanged (changed within narrow range), over the lifetime of the individual. This ‘life-time’ property brings a risk. If biometric data obtained by unauthorized users (eg, compromised from a database) then the owner loses control over the data and loses his identity. Lost passwords can be changed, but e.g. if someone’s face is compromised from a database, they cannot cancel it or reissue it. A proposed solution is the ‘cancellable biometrics’ technique which distorts the biometric image before matching. But for every solution there is another problem. A criminal employee could undistort the template with knowledge of the distortion key. If we distrust the employees sufficiently to require a distortion key, why would we trust them with the distortion key?

There is what I call a ‘Hydra Effect’ in technology. In Greek mythology whenever the Hydra beast was decapitated it grew two more heads. Similarly, every technical solution creates at least one more problem, which is often trickier to solve. A technical solution is eventually found at great cost, and then more problems appear. There may well be diminishing returns on the resources being put into this ceaseless round of technical innovations that ultimately cannot overcome the fundamental issue of human weakness and failure.

Can we preserve our privacy?

We may take privacy to be the state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion into one’s personal life. It is a value that is embodied in human rights, national laws and diverse regulations. ID-technology gives rise to the possibility of the misuse (real or perceived) of personal biometric information for gainful intrusion. Examples of known misuses are surveillance videos of vehicle licence plates being used to record license plates to blackmail people, to stalk women and to track estranged spouses. In some cases it has been police officers who have been guilty of these offences.

Fingerprint recognition for the ignition of your car might seem like the latest desirable innovation in hi-tech protection. But one may forget the human factor. In 2005 Malaysian car thieves cut off the finger of the driver of a Mercedes S-Class car so that they could steal his car. If he had not had a sophisticated biometric device in the ignition he would at least still have his finger. In the USA and EU some fear that biometric information can be ‘skimmed’ and sold to criminals to identify individuals for ransom-kidnapping and the like. In even worse scenarios a racist or totalitarian government ( Hitler, Pol Pot, etc.) could use data to determine unwanted traits in humans for population control

The Panopticon state?

One future scenario that does not receive enough serious attention is the convergence of different ID-technologies into one (more or less) interconnected system. Intelligence services world-wide are well on their way. We could already be witnessing an information cascade, held back only by lack of harmonisation, human incompetence and poor communications. Public protest is not yet a major hindrance.

The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham conceived a plan in 1791 for a new kind of prison, the Panopticon, the novelty of which was that any prison could be seen from anywhere at any time. A variety of modern technologies, including those based on biometrics, may be converging towards the possibility of a Panopticon State, in which any citizen can be tracked and a life-profile composed without their ever knowing. Body scans, bank details, credit card trails, Google, RFID, fingerprints, face and iris, recognition, GPS, health records, mobile phone use, bus and train cameras, spy satellites, street cameras, wire taps and now body scans could, in theory, be brought together in various configurations. Perhaps only the political will stands in the way.

Biometric information may be shared or different databases may be networked, eg, telebiometric systems join biometrics with telecommunications. There is the possibility of tracking individuals. For example, security cameras can be linked to a facial recognition system or a public transport system using biometry. At the moment, in most cases the information from different sensors generate differently encrypted outcomes so cannot be compared, but this can be overcome. The unification of different biometric outcomes by means of data exposure or through global or regional standardisation is not impossible. Already there are some public concerns about ‘leakage’ of fingerprint data from schools to health, insurance and other agencies with a discriminatory effect on access to services.

Sir Ken MacDonald QC,  the UK's Director of Public Prosecutions (2003-08) has said, "We need to take very great care not to fall into a way of life in which freedom's back is broken by the relentless pressure of a security State.” Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner is reported as saying “My anxiety is that we don’t sleepwalk into a surveillance society”. He was thinking mainly of the UK’s National Identity Scheme. These two people are hardly radicals, and know ‘from the inside’ what they are talking about.

We may think the main issue is National ID cards, but they have a lesser role than the database they are linked to, i.e. the National Identity Register.  A new law specifies 50 categories of information that the Register can hold on each citizen, including up to 10 fingerprints, digitised facial scan and iris scan, current and past UK and overseas places of residence, throughout their lives and with indices to other Government databases which would allow them to be connected into a personal profile. The legislation also says that any further information can be added. The amount of data which can be recorded on the scheme’s Register is unlimited. Still, the good news is that fingerprints are not yet being taken, and plans to take iris scans have been dropped, although not ruled out.

This is not the place to go into the detail of the scheme but the Home Office forecasts that 265 government departments and as many as 48,000 accredited private sector organisations would have access to the database, and that 163 million identity verifications or more may take place each year. The cost of the scheme is variously put at between 5 and 15 billion pounds over 10 years.

Naturally, the Commission for Racial Equality and ethnic/religious minorities are expressing concerns about discrimination. If one thinks this is far-fetched or alarmist one should recall that in the USA not so long ago the FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (and his vast fingerprint records) pursued not only  criminals, but people he chose to classify as "security risks," "subversives," "agitators," "deviants," "black nationalists," and "peaceniks."

Provisions for consent to biometric schemes

Public acceptance of the national ID scheme has been mixed and controversial (but not controversial enough), with diminishing support after reports of the loss of  millions of items of public service information  in several quarters (See the NGO called “NO2ID”). Meanwhile, some UK parents have been protesting school fingerprinting since 2001. These are used for purposes of registration, truancy control,  parental payments, replacements of library or meal cards, and possibly for exam ID.

Protests sometimes take a more colourful form. The Chaos Computer Club of hackers published a fingerprint of the German Minister of the Interior, Wolfgang Schäuble, in its magazine Datenschleuder (March 2008). The magazine included the fingerprint on a film for readers to give them access to whatever the Minister had access to. If they can do it, criminals can do it, and undemocratic governments can do it.

A particular focus for protest in the UK has been school fingerprinting without consent. One surprising facet of this is that the Data Protection Act does not explicitly require schools to gain consent. The Act is, apparently, about information, not images. More research also needs to be given to how the Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act relate to the storage and transmission of ‘data’ which is perhaps not ‘information’ in the sense of text. A democratic future depends on asking many questions that are currently not even being conceived, let alone asked.

Professor Geoffrey Hunt teaches at St Mary's University College in London. This article by Professor Hunt was originally published on the website of BioCentre, a think-tank focusing on emerging technologies and their ethical, social and political implications.

Copyright © Geoffrey Hunt . Published by You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

comments powered by Disqus
Follow MercatorNet
MercatorNet RSS feed
subscribe to newsletter
Sections and Blogs
Family Edge
Sheila Reports
Reading Matters
Demography Is Destiny
From the Editor
contact us
our ideals
our People
our contributors
Mercator who?
partner sites
audited accounts
advice for writers
privacy policy
New Media Foundation
L1 488 Botany Rd
Alexandria NSW 2015
+61 2 8005 8605
skype: mercatornet

© New Media Foundation