This page considers attitudes to biometrics and biometric
collections such as networked national fingerprint databases,
including responses by civil society advocates and ordinary
It covers -
- what do we know about attitudes to biometrics?
and exposure - how many people have used biometric systems
- what do people think about biometrics?
fearing the database?
What do people think about biometrics?
The answers are unclear, given the apparent range of opinions
(and the intensity of some perceptions), the narrowness
of most research and the tendency of some solution vendors/buyers
to release conclusions without providing meaningful information
about sample sizes/characteristics or questionnaire structure.
It is thus common to encounter claims that consumers welcome
particular biometric applications (particularly if the
application affects someone else, such as a refugee or
recipient of welfare services) or that they are widely
and deeply opposed to biometrics per se and are
strongly concerned about potential misuses of biometric
One of the few surveys specific to biometrics was a small
US survey in 2001-2 for SEARCH on Public Attitudes
Toward the Uses of Biometric Identification Technologies
by Government and the Private Sector (PDF).
It suggested that around 82% of respondents considered
that fingerprint imaging was "somewhat acceptable"
- post 9/11 in obtaining a passport, 84% to obtain entry
into official buildings, 82% at airport check-ins, 77%
to obtain a drivers license and 60% to rent a car.
91% were comfortable with officials creating a 'biometric
database' of everyone convicted of a serious crime, "for
use in later criminal investigations". 86% would
supposedly allow biometric screening of welfare recipients,
87% would allow security guards to screen people entering
a school (with a biometric database of convicted child
molesters) and 90% would allow biometric checking of applicants
for occupational licenses such as teachers, private
security guards or nursing home staff.
Around 80% indicated that it was important that -
IDs only be used in ways known of and approved of by
(including the stigmatised?) should be fully informed
about how their ID is being used and why it is needed
data should not be shared with other organisations
Biometric IDs be collected knowingly, except in cases
of national security
should be restrictions on combining biometric data and
being and tracking people using biometric identification.
figures are broadly consistent with conclusions in the
2001 RAND Army Biometric Applications: Identifying
and Addressing Sociocultural Concerns study
highlighted earlier in this note.
A 2004 US survey for solutions vendor EDS
69% of respondents are "open to the idea of using
biometrics" for identity management. ("Only
12 percent said no to biometrics, while 19 percent are
88% of the respondents willing to accept biometrics
are in favor "because it is convenient and does
not require them to remember passwords"
85% preferred finger prints, 84% chose voice recognition
"for convenience and speed".
figures appear in the thin 2005 Consumer Attitudes
about biometrics in ID documents study (PDF)
A 2005 US survey sponsored by vendor AuthenTec similarly
claimed that "63% of consumers would pay extra to
add fingerprint biometrics to their PC and notebook computers,
while 71% would pay more for this feature in their cellular
phones" and that "43% are most interested in
using fingerprint sensors to replace their computer or
internet passwords. ... 29% said they would be willing
to pay more than $25 for the additional feature".
It remains to be seen whether consumers would be prepared
to match survey responses to action, and whether the sample
is representative. Grounds for caution are provided in
Sandra Giarimi & Helen Magnusson's Investigation
of User Acceptance for Biometric Verification/Identification
Methods in Mobile Units (PDF).
Detailed figures on the number of people for whom use
of biometric technologies is inherently offensive, distasteful,
discriminatory or invasive are unknown. It is likely that
such figures will only be available once several governments
require enrolment in systems, such as health cards and
passports, that are based on particular biometrics.
In Australia and overseas attitudes to biometrics appear
to reflect exposure to the technology (familiarity is
generally associated with lower levels of anxiety) and
sensitisation to privacy or other issues. That has led
to industry statements such as
they understand the limited nature of the data involved,
people become more comfortable with the technology and
their perception will change.
group and other mechanisms for teasing out attitudes suggest
that the stance of some consumers and policymakers is
in fact quite nuanced, with an appreciation of particular
technologies but considerable skepticism about effectiveness
- eg biometrics potentially 'authenticating' bad data
- and wariness about misuse.
That wariness was reflected in the Australian Biometrics
Institute draft Biometrics Privacy Code (PDF)
- "to ensure that Australian citizens have a greater
level of privacy protection than currently exists"
- and in documents such as the Australian Law Reform Commission's
2003 Essentially Yours: The Protection of Human Genetic
Information in Australia report
and 2004 European Commission Biometrics at the Frontiers
The SEARCH survey suggested that among the small group
of respondents who had provided identifiers,
fingerprint scanning was the most commonly experienced
technique (experienced by 82% in 2002), followed by signature
dynamics (46%), hand geometry (19%), facial recognition
(supposedly up from 4% in 2001 to 22% in 2002), voice
recognition (27%) and 'eye recognition' (20%). oward fingerprinting
may serve as some indication of attitudes toward identification.
Around two in three US adults in the survey (69% in 2001
but down to 66% in 2002) reported having been fingerprinted
for identification purposes, with roughly 90% feeling
it was an appropriate requirement (although around 20%
of the cohort indicated that "finger-imaging treats
people like presumed criminals").
Some concerns regarding biometric databases essentially
relate to data collection mechanisms - for example facial
imaging may be considered as invasive in some cultures
- or to enrolment per se rather than how the resultant
data is used/misused.
Criticisms of biometric databases on privacy
grounds broadly reflect concerns about databases as such,
rather than inherent discomfort with biometric identification/verification.
Unique identifiers are an issue in an environment where
databases are the building blocks of almost every modern
service and transaction, because such identifiers can
link disparate databases and information. Those concerns
collection, whether through 'surveillance at a distance'
technologies such as gait and facial recognition via
closed circuit television cameras in public places or
through mandatory enrolment (no passport = no international
collection, with biometric technologies being deployed
in situations where there are few measurable benefits
for strong user authentication or identification and
where the existence of the data and collection mechanisms
promotes both misuse of the collection (eg function
creep) and subversion of the system.
use, often assessed as the greatest risk biometrics
pose to privacy. Such concerns include forensic usage
and usage as unique identifier. Given
reliance on fingerprints as the primary means of forensic
identification, there is wariness that information provided
for public or private sector purposes will facilitate
police searches, both automated and through use of latent
images. Every database with a biometric could be used
as a database of criminal records, representing a significant
increase in the potentially intrusive investigative
powers of the state. Use of biometrics to monitor, link
and track an individual's daily activity is another
common fear, unsurprising if there is a requirement
to provide biometric information in government, financial,
health service, retail and employment environments.
disclosure underpins unauthorised use and erodes the
individual's control over information, a loss that is
central to many privacy concerns.
creep involves expansion of a scheme or system into
areas for which it was not originally intended. Use
of national identity numbers in a broad variety of applications
illustrates the danger of function creep, with discrimination
against those who do not have (or merely do not provide)
identifiers and use by public/private sector entities
in locating and linking data across collections.
Consumer concerns about biometric databases similarly
reflect where people are standing, encompassing perceptions
about networked data collection/handling and sensitivities
about mandatory enrolment.
Privacy International, in criticising ICAO standards for
in 2004 that
is a potentially perilous plan. The ICAO must go back
to the drawing board or hold itself responsible for
creating the first truly global biometric database.
spokesperson commented that
may claim that they are under an international obligation
to create national databases of fingerprints and face
scans but we will soon see nations with appalling human
rights records generating massive databases, and then
requiring our own fingerprints and face-scans as we
next part (biometrics
in popular culture)