When news broke that police used a video identification system to scan the faces of incoming football fans at the Super Bowl this year, reaction to the high-tech surveillance test spoke volumes about the state of biometric technology in the public sector today.

On one hand, many were amazed at the speed and accuracy of the system, which took less than a second to compare the faces of fans with a database containing thousands of digital images of known criminals and suspected terrorists.

On the other hand, many were outraged at what they saw as an invasion of privacy. The videotaping was done without the fans knowledge. Tampa police said the practice was similar to the use of cameras at busy intersections to nab speeding motorists, but privacy groups werent happy. Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Washington Post, "We are quickly moving to the point where law enforcement and the private sector will be able to identify us no matter where we go, no matter how anonymous we think we are."

For those who follow biometrics in state and local government, the reaction to the Super Bowl incident is no surprise. For years, law enforcement officials at the state and local level have been using biometric fingerprint scanning systems to identify criminals. Their success and accuracy caught the attention of other government agencies where fraud, perpetrated through false identification, has been a problem. Human service agencies wanted the technology to help stop welfare cheats. Departments of motor vehicles saw biometrics as a way to deter people from fraudulently applying for a drivers license.

Despite evidence that the technology works, only a handful of states are using biometrics to identify welfare recipients and drivers. "Interest in fingerprint scanning has dropped off," said David Mintie, project coordinator of Connecticuts digital imaging project in the Department of Social Services. "There are lots of concerns about privacy issues."

Others have said it more bluntly. In a recent issue of the Human Services User Group Newsletter, attorney Tim Schellberg wrote, "Misconceptions about biometrics, coupled with the privacy paranoia that has swept the nation, have caused legislative bodies to become more skeptical of biometric applications."

In short, interest in using biometrics to reduce fraud appears to be waning, not growing.

A Chilling Effect

When Los Angeles County began using finger imaging technology in 1991 to deter welfare fraud and then announced six months later that it had saved more than $5 million, just about everybody sat up and took notice. Original projections showed that the system had the potential of saving the county as much as $116 million (those figures were later downsized by 26 percent). By 1996, seven states were in various stages of planning, designing and implementing finger imaging systems for welfare recipients.

Today, however, little has changed. Eight states use finger-imaging systems to detect welfare fraud. Two more are developing systems and one state -- North Carolina -- has dropped plans to use the technology. Mintie ticks off several reasons why the technology has not caught on. First, privacy worries have had a chilling effect. "States are more fearful about opposition to the system, despite what they would gain from using it," he said.

As a result, approximately 15 states have introduced anti-biometric legislation in the past few years.

But other issues have also hurt the growth of biometrics in human services. The systems in place today were built without standards, according to Mintie. "What weve got now are a bunch of biometric silos," he explained.

Whats needed is a standard for minutia extraction, according to Mintie, so that states can share data. Minutia is the data attributed to the unique ridges that appear on a persons finger. Without that data exchange, interstate identification of welfare

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor