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Are We Truly Ready for Government to Use Biometric Identifiers?

If biometrics can improve security or accelerate travel times, most citizens will welcome it, a new survey says.

by / June 30, 2014
An Iraqi recruit gets processed through the Biometric Automated Tool Set System before leaving for boot camp at the Recuiting Station in Fallujah, Iraq. According to a new survey, there’s been a huge change in public opinion and people are much more willing to use biometrics than they have in the past. Official USMC photograph taken by Cpl Spencer M. Murphy

For technologies that were once considered creepy, the public is making concessions: Most people are willing to share biometric information with government agencies if it would in some way improve their travel experience, according to a survey released June 24 by Accenture. More specifically, of the 3,000 respondents in six countries (the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Japan and Australia), 87 percent agreed to such use with varying degrees of confidence.

These results were startling, said Mark Crego, managing director for Accenture Border and Identity Services, adding that people are especially willing to share biometric information when it comes to improving security. 

“It seems there’s been a huge change in public opinion and that people are much more willing to use biometrics as they have in the past," he said, "particularly if … they can feel more secure, they can see a national security increase, where they see benefits to themselves and where it doesn’t take any more time to get through the borders."

Globally, 62 percent of respondents said they would be willing to participate in a biometrics program if it made their borders more secure, 56 percent said they would participate if it made travel more convenient, and 58 percent said they would participate if it made travel faster.

Perception vs. Reality

Survey results also showed an inverse relationship between willingness of the public to participate in such programs and a nation’s actual biometric adoption. In Germany, for instance, 23 percent of respondents reported they had shared biometric information before -- the highest of all countries participating in the survey -- but they were also the least willing to participate in biometrics by a margin of about 10 percent when compared with the U.S., the country most willing to participate. Similarly, Germany has a fingerprint biometric included in its passports, while the U.S. has not yet opted to include any biometric data in its passports.

Privacy and Biometrics

On the same day the results of Accenture's survey were released, leaders at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced they had convened a group to discuss the threat of biometrics, such as facial recognition, to privacy. The group blogged about effort, noting a “rocky start,” as the International Biometrics & Identification Association denied any privacy issue with the adoption of biometrics, a stance the ACLU fervently disagrees with.

“While the survey reveals one thing in terms of public perception, the realities of public policy may be a little bit different,” Crego said, adding that through his work at Accenture, he's noticed several trends in technology that may contribute to the changing sentiment around biometrics, the first being exposure.

As consumer devices like the iPhone 5, which contain fingerprint scanning capabilities, become more common, people become comfortable with the idea of biometric technology. Scanning a thumb on an iPhone is practice for giving the government the same information later.

In other cases, Crego said, making people comfortable with the technology can be as simple as changing one small detail. “There is a program that we’ve been managing for the last 10 years, for which I was the chief architect, and one of the things we did on that program was we changed the way people capture fingerprints for civilian purposes,” Crego said. “The device itself had a red color on the fingerprint scanner, so it kind of scared people.”

They wanted to make the device more friendly, so with FBI approval, they changed the color of the scanner light from red to green, Crego said, and that made a big difference. “That device, which only required about 3,000 units for the U.S. border, has sold more than 200,000 units across all companies worldwide,” he said. “And it’s radically changed the way civilian fingerprint capture is done. We found that if you’re willing to make it friendly, people are willing to use the biometrics.”

Through programs like the Department of Homeland Security’s United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) and facial recognition scanners at airports throughout Europe, Accenture saw increased travel speeds, Crego said, and that’s the kind of result that leads to public acceptance and willingness for adoption. In the U.S., 64 percent of respondents said they would be willing to participate in a frequent flier program in which they underwent a background check – these high levels of acceptance were completely unexpected, Crego said.

Making Biometrics a Reality

Despite a willingness to participate, as shown by the survey, the U.S. is lagging in biometrics adoption, said Avivah Litan, Gartner analyst. “I think companies underestimate how much consumers want more security and of course there’s convenience,” Litan said. “But a lot of banks are afraid to ask consumers to download software or to enroll in biometrics. They think people don’t want to be bothered, they think it’s imposing. And I think this study shows that consumers will go an extra mile for better security, which in most cases offers more convenience.”

It is, however, rather difficult to get people enrolled in biometric programs, she added, but cases are popping up more and more. Several banks now use voice recognition as part of their fraud detection process while authenticating customers over the phone.

And since the public is willing to accept biometrics as witnessed by this survey, Litan says it’s time for adoption, because nothing else is working that well. “The bad guys have figured out how to counterfeit documents," she said, "and there’s a great need for authentication everywhere, not just in airports, but across the Web and in all our interactions."

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Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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