Making the Case for Digitally-Accessible Biometric ID Cards

There's quite a bit of insecurity in the United States about the prospect of biometric identification cards, an issue that finds its roots in the illegal immigration debates between 2004 and 2006. For civil libertarians, the concept of a card containing your fingerprint, medical data, residence information and – potentially – rings an Orwellian bell. Pro-immigrant activist groups feared the card could be used to discriminate against granting new work visas.

Now Congress is again pursuing the issue of a "smart" national ID, pushing the Obama Administration to consider the use of biometric identification as a simpler means for employer verification of residency and legal working status. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union are dusting off their talking points in preparation for the fight. With a decidedly left-leaning Congress and White House, the issue seems dead in the water.

But ignoring the possibilities of a digital biometric ID gives the touchy issue short shrift, for a national biometric ID card need not be an Orwellian intrusion into the private lives of Americans, nor does it need to be a major identity theft crisis waiting to happen. In fact, contrary to the arguments of both hard-line conservatives and privacy advocates, national biometric ID's could potentially turn the United States into a better, more efficient place to live. Let's find out why.

Building Lots of Information Into a Small Package

Biometric identification is a tough issue due in large part to the political heat surrounding the discussion. Part the concept of biometric ID cards from the various offshoots of anti-immigrant sentiment, though, and there still remains a core idea worthy of discussion: Should our most important citizenship and biological information be moved onto a single card capable of serving as both identification and, in some cases, medical history?

The informative website has a great article on how identification cards filled with our medical histories and lab results could eventually replace insurance cards as a means of quick identification in emergencies. The French national health system currently uses a different form of this system by providing citizens a comprehensive medical history and insurance card without the security of biometrics.

Fujitsu, the company behind a new "biometric information ring" worn on the finger, hopes its peculiar brand of IT will replace easy-to-lose insurance cards. While noting that insurance ID cards pose relatively little threat of identity theft due to their specialized use, Fujitsu also pointed out that their biometric ID contains more identity theft safeguards than currently existing insurance cards:

A vice president for Fujitsu, Josh Napua, had some things to say
about the new technology. Napua pointed out that, rather than having a
card that you could lose or being identified by your
social security number which is vulnerable to identity theft, you can
identify yourself using this biometric technology.

The scanner works like this: you place your palm over a scanner. The
scanner than reads the veins in your palm. It creates a
unique signature based on the scan of your palm. The scan is then
matched with the medical records of the person being scanned, as well as
your medical insurance

By integrating impossible-to-duplicate authentication technology and comprehensive medical histories into one device, Fujitsu has vastly improved on a system that frequently requires multiple layers of information confirmation to protect against unintentional medical mistakes. Consider it something akin to streamlining medical care by compiling a warehouse of the patient's medical data right on their person.

Fujitsu's ring has potential beyond just hospital care. As a unique biometric identification and data storage system, it has the potential to serve as authentication for security clearances in high-security government and military installations. Fujitsu's product website even notes its potential to cut down on government security breaches due to the effectiveness of its vein detection software. Compiling loads of helpful information into a system that turns the user's own body into its authentication method has vast potential to reform and renovate the United States government's aging system of paper-based security clearances and SF-86 forms.

Refocusing the Biometric Debate

One of the biggest problems in the biometric identification debate is its tacit link to illegal immigration – mainly the conservative Republican idea that introducing widespread national biometrics will keep illegal immigrants from taking jobs in the United States by mandating employers verify 'right to work' through biometrics. This is indeed a use for biometric identification containing information about a potential employee's work history, immigration status, and current legal residence.

But biometrics can serve multiple beneficial purposes everywhere from battlegrounds to hospitals. As bnet News reports, the widespread implementation of biometric identification cards in Afghanistan has helped prevent militants from accessing American military bases by way of forged base passes.

By focusing on the positive aspects of biometric identification – most importantly cost savings over current, often redundant methods of identity verification – the debate can move from a thinly-veiled anti-immigrant position to one of greater import to the rest of the nation.

There are also privacy concerns, as many civil liberties organizations note. The theft of a biometric identification card is made out to be the end of the world, with our hypothetical identity thief making off with your bank information, sensitive medical records and data on your child's next soccer game.

The bulk of these concerns are hyperbole churned out to score political points, and they should be treated as such. As you'll see, the threat of ruinous biometric identity theft is best left in science fiction.

As CNN noted back in 2005, an all-purpose federal identification card accessed through fingerprint or retinal scan is nearly impossible to steal, as its very activation depends on the authorized user providing the proper input. There are even private companies engaging in a rudimentary for of biometrics that can easily be scaled up in the form of a biometric-authorized national ID card. From the article:

Albertson's, the No. 2 supermarket chain, is one of hundreds of
retailers testing biometric payment systems that let customers pay for
purchases with a mere swipe of a finger.

It works like this: You register your fingerprint and your bank account
with a service provider. The main ones are Pay By Touch and BioPay.
When you shop at a participating merchant, you just swipe your finger
and the payment is automatically transferred from your bank to the
merchant — you don't have to hand over a card, sign a receipt or punch
in a PIN.

We have a long way to go before any proposed national biometric identification card contains your credit cards and purchase history, but trends towards time-saving and all-in-one "lifestyle" programs (Google, take note) mean consumers and citizens are more likely to accept increasingly digitized transactions so long as they come free from the polarizing and all-too-often terrifying hyperbole of political arguments on everything from immigrants to government spying and identity theft.

As with all things related to emergent technology, the best course of action is to decouple the debate over biometrics from other politically expedient issues. Any biometric identification must be introduced on its own merits as a means to tame mountains of bureaucratic paperwork prone to loss and misuse while providing a more efficient means of delivering services, entitlements, medical care and many other services to Americans.

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