There has been a pretty fervent acceleration in biometric data collection planned in recent months. If you’re not worried about that, you should be.
In fact, as silly as it sounds, try to be most worried about it than seems normal. After all, for-profit biometric data collection has gone through a surprising degree of normalization over the past decade. The idea of Apple scanning your fingerprint daily seemed surprising. Now is how we unlock our banking app and our laptop – unless, of course, we do it with our face. It became mainstream.
We adopt FaceID, fingerprint scanning and similar functions specifically because they are convenient. No password, no problems.
Corporations and businesses have realized this, and now convenience is among the two biggest reasons commonly given for adopting biometric data collection – the other is public safety, which we’ll talk about later. Fast biometric scans, they say, make things faster and easier.
In an attempt to save time, several primary schools across the UK have recently implemented face scanning for lunch payment. Several schools ended up suspending the program after data privacy experts and parents pushed back. They argued that convenience wasn’t exactly worth the price of accumulating an entire database of children’s faces stored on a server somewhere. And they are right.
Music for your ears, palm print for your ticket
In September of this year, US ticket company AXS announced a flagship program to use Amazon One fingerprint scanners at the Red Rocks Amphitheater as an optional alternative to print or mobile concert tickets (with plans to expand to additional locations in the coming months). The decision was received with immediate resistance from privacy experts and musicians, and was hardly the first talking point about biometric data collection in the live music industry.
In 2019, major promoters LiveNation and AEG (which coordinates major festivals like Coachella) backtracked from plans to invest in and implement facial recognition technology at shows after public outcry from fans and artists.
But the fight over the use of biometric recognition during live entertainment is far from settled. When the coronavirus pandemic sent professional sports executives who rely on packed stadiums back to the drawing board, their new plans often incorporated mass facial recognition. Faces would replace tickets, and that would ostensibly make everyone safer from the virus.
These executives are determined. Dutch football team AFC Ajax is trying to reinstall its pilot facial recognition program that was initially stopped by data protection regulators. Henk van Raan, Innovation Director at Ajax Headquarters Amsterdam ArenA, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying, “I hope we use this coronavirus pandemic to change the rules. The coronavirus is a bigger enemy than [any threat to] privacy.”
This is terrible reasoning, as the risks posed to our privacy are in no way mitigated or lessened by our risk of a virus.
In the same article, Shaun Moore, CEO of facial recognition provider Trueface, described his conversations with professional sports executives as being extremely concerned about touchpoints, avoiding handing out credentials, citing the risk of virus transmission while scanning passwords. ticket bars.
This is a snippet, and you don’t have to be an epidemiologist to call it one. When the main event involves a large crowd of people screaming and cheering alongside each other, it’s probably not the momentary masked interaction when an agent scans a ticket that’s worth worrying about. As the security argument collapses, so does the convenience one. The simple fact is that our lives are not improved exponentially and significantly by replacing a cell phone ticket with a palm print. That extra five seconds is a moot point.
It’s interesting to see van Raan speak so directly about using the pandemic to override privacy protections and concerns. But your reasoning is frightening and flawed.
Yes, the coronavirus is a real threat, but it is not an “enemy”. It is not embodied, nor does it have a motive. It’s a virus. It’s out of human control. In terms of insurance, it is an “act of God”. And it is being used to justify something that is very much under human control: the huge increase in the collection of biometrics under the guise of public safety or convenience.
Public security and free societies
Public safety is often the cause on which increased biometric surveillance is foisted. In August, US lawmakers introduced a mandate this would require automakers to include passive technology in new cars to prevent drunk drivers from starting their vehicles. This “passive” technology can be anything from eye-scanning devices and breathalyzers to an infrared sensor that tests BAC levels through the skin.
Of course, this is a seemingly noble cause with a respectable motive. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drunk driving kills about 10,000 people a year; The European Commission lists a similar number for the EU.
But where is all this data going? Where is it being stored? Who is it being sold to and what do they plan to do with it? The privacy risks are too great.
The pandemic has removed many of the obstacles preventing the adoption of mass biometric data collection, and the consequences will be disastrous for civil liberties if it continues in this way. The intensity of surveillance is increasing in record time, making governments and for-profit corporations aware of the most private minutiae of our lives and bodies.
A mobile ticket is surveillance enough – after all, it announces to the system that you’ve entered the place at the right time. Don’t fix it if it’s not broken! And don’t add biometric data collection just because you can, under the guise of not spreading germs.
Distribute as little biometric data as possible, period. It’s not enough to avoid providing your biometrics specifically to Google or Amazon, given the abysmal records of these corporations when it comes to, say, basic human rights and civil liberties.
A smaller company unaffiliated with your typical tech giant might seem like a minor threat, but don’t be fooled. The moment Amazon or Google acquire this company, they acquire your and everyone else’s biometric data with it. And we’re back where we started.
A safe society need not be a heavily guarded society. We have been building increasingly safer and healthier societies for centuries without the use of a single video camera. And beyond security, heavy surveillance, so detailed and individualized, is the death knell of a society that values civil liberties.
Maybe that’s what it all boils down to. A free and open society is not without risk – this is undoubtedly one of the main tenets of Western political thought since the Enlightenment. These risks are far preferable to those of living in a heavily guarded society.
In other words, there’s no way out of the biometric grid we’re heading to. The time to stop the slump by regulating and eliminating the unnecessary collection of biometric data, particularly when for-profit corporations are involved, is now.