Biometric technology and its impending mass deployment in the UK – the National Identity programme – aren’t the subject for polite conversation.
Like the religion and politics of IT discussions, biometrics is best avoided for fear that diametrically opposing views may sour any business discussion. Feelings run high when people are asked to provide scans of certain physical attributes – face, finger, voice, gait, vein patterns and numerous other possibilities – that are turned into a digital pattern unique to them and used to recognise or validate their identity.
The fact that the Home Office wants to collect 13 biometrics from every resident in the UK – all 10 fingers, face and both irides (the official plural of irises) – may send a shiver down many spines, but that does not detract from the fact that the technology, when deployed with care and experience, works well for both business and its customers.
Just ask the students of Oxford who regularly had their alcohol purchases rejected at local Co-ops until the stores introduced fingerprint recognition check-out; or the fire fighters of Tayside region, who were forced to remember half a dozen passwords until their biometric system gave them touchpad single sign-on; or the 32,000 frequent fliers that pass through Schiphol airport who can turn up for a flight close to departure time because they are fast-tracked through automated gates by an iris-recognition system.
As our cover story this month highlights, Europe has been a laggard in terms of biometric adoption compared to countries as diverse as Japan, Columbia, Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia. Some may say that the reticence reflects of a higher level of liberal democracy, where the state has little facility to track the lives of its citizens. But, as has been pointed out many times before, Visa and MasterCard know more about you and your private life than any company or government department holding a single scrambled algorithm of your fingerprint.
Over the next two years, as biometrics technology becomes mainstream – an inseparable part of travel, citizenship and commerce across Europe – debate over its merits will lose some of its charge. And IT has a major role to play in defusing the technology myths that have held back constrictive discussion – no matter how impolite..