Biometrics is penetrating deeper into our lives than ever before. Next-generation passports with stored fingerprint data are being issued in almost every country. Russia is moving toward a universal identification card, supposed to arrive sometime next year, which we have covered before. However, of all countries, Mexico is really taking a step into the future when it comes to biometrics. It all started last September, when the residents of the city of Leon were due to be secured through iris scanning. Now, they are taking it to the next level, registering all children of the state of Guanajuato in a biometric database, which includes iris and fingerprint information.
If things will continue to develop this way (and there is currently no reason for them not to), in ten more years we will probably live in a world where each one of us can be identified in any database by an eye scan, or fingerprint, or miniscule blood sample. At the risk of sounding trite and repetitive, I do have to say that this initiative brings to life what the filmmaker Steven Spielberg only imagined in his 2002 sci-fi drama, Minority Report. Ironically, I just happened to be recently watching that movie with my family, and amidst the action and cool special effects, my father and I struck up a discussion on whether or not the eye scanning system shown in the film was actually realistic. I argued that while it is definitely technically possible, we were a long way off from implementing it on a large scale, because, I thought, we do not yet have machines that scan many people at a time, and, on the ethical side, there would be many legal issues to work out before something like this was allowed to be put in practice. Little did I know…
As can be seen from the above examples, many countries are already passing legislation that will allow them such, at first glance, Orwellian measures. On the technical side, the units in Leon are capable of scanning approximately 30-40 pairs of eyes per minute, and that rate is only going to increase as the technology keeps improving. That is about a class and a half of schoolchildren. Speaking of schoolchildren, let us go back to the situation in Guanajuato, Mexico. The children are and will be enrolled in the system almost from their very birth and this raises a sizeable wave of protests among residents of Mexico and other countries as well. The primary concern is that this is one more piece of information that is going to wind up in a centralized government database and will be used to track every living person enrolled, resulting in some soon-to-be global police state.
It is true that for some reason, perhaps because it is an intrinsic human characteristic, or as a reactionary measure to the widespread transparency of today, modern society is extremely protective of its privacy. I am no stranger to that notion and enjoy keeping my business my own as much as the next guy, but in this particular case, people’s fears are very much blown out of proportion, even though their premise is legitimate. In order for the government to track someone’s position in the world, it is not necessary to implement a biometrics database. All that is needed is to hone in on the signal emitted by one’s mobile phone (even if it is not making a call), and since virtually everyone owns a cell phone nowadays, virtually everyone can be tracked.
Before anyone rushes to throw his or her SIM card out the window, though, let me jump slightly ahead and say that this is just the nature of the world we live in. Geographic positioning and other tracking methods are simply the other side of the coin of rapidly improving communication technologies. Moreover, we volunteer information every day. A person can be very accurately profiled based on his or her credit purchases and everyone’s loan and credit histories are directly linked to their social security number. The fact of the matter is, the government already has all of the information it needs to track any person in its jurisdiction. That is why fighting against progress out of privacy concerns is ridiculous. Those energies would be much better spent to influence politicians to pass appropriate legislation protecting an individual’s privacy from being invaded without due cause.
Biometric iris identification, however, is even less a tracking device than it is a convenient feature that can also be used to improve safety. Newborn children were enrolled in the program in Guanajuato, Mexico because that particular state has had a history of child kidnappings for at least three years. Iris scanning is a much more effective way to determine someone’s identity, which makes it harder for kidnappers to pass the baby off as their own.
Many American opponents of this idea argue that this will not help, as most kidnappers are actually the child’s relatives. However, their mistake is that they are transposing American reality onto Mexican soil. The situation in places like Guanajuato is much more serious than most of us can imagine. Kidnapping has become a lucrative business and is no longer driven solely by personal or familial motives. It is because the situation is so volatile that I think compiling a central biometric database is more than warranted, especially since, and I would once again like to stress this, it does not curtail privacy any more than it already is.
Scientific and technological progress is being made all the time. Biometrics is entering our lives in a big way and it is not going away. Perhaps in the near future we will be able to discard most of our identifications such as passports, driver’s licenses, etc. in favor of a single, simple iris scan. Contrary to the popular belief this will actually be safer, since it is much harder to forge an eye signature than it is to make a fake passport. As new technology continues to develop, we have to remind ourselves not to fall into panic, and that it is only a tool. What matters more are the decisions we make with it.