Biometric identification is convenient, but caution is needed

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One form of biometric identification that has been overlooked, in my opinion, is smell. I remember reading somewhere that we are all much more different from each other in “olfactory space” so to speak, than we are in “light space”. That is, a dog, to take the obvious example, finds us more unique and more easily separated by smell than by light.

(Dogs, in fact, have neural pathways that connect smell and sight in ways that humans don’t. Cornell University Research seems to indicate that dogs’ connections between the nose and the visual cortex mean that olfaction is integrated with vision in terms of how they learn about their environment.)

If we could invent a dog’s nose on a chip and add it to smart phones, within minutes of entering a room your phone could present you with a list of everyone in the room. Quite interesting. This is hard to do because (as reported by the Wall Street Journal) odors are made up of many different chemicals and so our olfactory receptors are electronically rich and difficult to emulate. Humans have three types of receptors for color vision, but hundreds of different olfactory receptors.

(Still, I imagine someone, somewhere is going to break it. After all, people have been working there for years.)

I rather like this idea that my devices will know when I’m there just by sniffing the breeze and I already have a business idea for an elevator-based odor detection and identification system that I’m taking directly to Schindler. But there must be concerns about the deployment of such technology. Look at the hype going on right now about facial recognition systems in public places.

There are plenty of good reasons to want facial recognition, provided it is used for good. And as long as it works. Police use of the technology is a real problem here in the UK where there have been many negative reports about facial recognition due to some forces deciding to start using it despite the current state of technique.

(Facial recognition technology mistakenly used by police in London identified members of the public in 96% of matches played between 2016 and 2018.)

There are obvious reasons to worry here. Like my good friend Jamie Bartlett, the man behind “The missing crypto-queen” (the best podcast of 2019), observed about the use of facial recognition by the police in the public space: “if the technology does not work, it will be a disaster and if it works, it will be even worse “.

Even if the biometric identification technology worked perfectly, is it worth risking the collection and processing of this data? What if this biometric data fell into the wrong hands? Remember when America pulled out of Afghanisan and left behind vast stores of digital data. Government databases included personal records and, in particular, biometric data such as fingerprints that facilitate the identification of individuals.


Worse still, what if your body odor could be snuffed out by bad actors, just like your fingerprints could be?

If you think that sounds implausible, remember that one of the more bizarre activities of the East German secret police, the Stasi, was the collection of geruchsproben – scent samples – for the benefit of East German scent hounds. Smells were collected during interrogations using a perforated metal “smell sampling chair” or by breaking into people’s homes and stealing their dirty underwear. The samples were then stored in small glass jars.

(I must say that if the Stasi had put me in an interrogation chair, they would have needed something more than a small glass jar to store the scent samples.)

Use and misuse

It’s not just law enforcement who want biometrics. Fintechs also want to go in this direction to support transactions. This is why, for example, Amazon
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is expand palm scan payments check out over 65 Whole Foods stores in California. However, the idea of ​​linking a biometric identifier to a payment card to speed up checkout at the grocery store is hardly new or revolutionary (after all, Piggly Wiggly used to do that many years ago), I’m interested in Amazon’s decision to go this route because it’s about convenience, not security.

Personally, I don’t find it so inconvenient to pay at the moment. I use my phone most of the time and have a wearable accessory (a ring) that I use when I can’t bother to get my phone out or, as happens from time to time, when my phone is running out of battery. Still, I can see that some people might find it helpful to go to the store without a phone or wallet and rely on ID rather than authentication to authorize a transaction.

(Note the important distinction between biometric authentication to get service, like me using FaceID on my iPhone, and biometric authentication to get service, like in-store cameras scanning my face as I walk through the store.)

However, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of ​​using this type of biometric identification to obtain service. Last year, Amazon wanted to try palm scanning at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver, but consumers, artists and human rights groups complained about it. decision and demanded a ban on all these biometric tools.

I think there are valid concerns here. We don’t really know yet what the new label should be in a new world of ubiquitous biometric identification, which is why some people (eg EU, Google
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and I) would like to see a moratorium on the deployment of facial recognition technology (a moratorium that should be extended to all population-scale passive biometrics in my opinion). Like the FT Noted, Brussels and Silicon Valley rarely agree when it comes to technology regulation, but in this particular case (and in the case of artificial intelligence), they may well be aligned. We don’t quite know what we’re doing, so we should stop and think about it.

China illustrates quite clearly how quickly biometric technology can begin to permeate all sectors if left unrestricted. I can choose any of a thousand examples to illustrate this point, but I like this one: taxi drivers in the Chinese city of Xi’an are verified by facial recognition technology when they take the wheel. The biometric identification system is, as is very fashionable these days, linked to an AI to ensure that drivers do not misbehave (for example, using their smartphone while on the road). road, etc). Now I understand why such a system is attractive: who doesn’t want a safer taxi service? But what if the database is hacked or the system is abused? What is the fallback solution? What is recovery?

Recovery is a very important point. I particularly appreciated a story from the South China Morning Post about a woman who had plastic surgery only to find she could no longer pay online or get into her office! If we start relying on such interfaces, they can lead to unexpected problems and there must be a way to recover from it.

We can’t stem the tide on passive biometric identification, but whichever way you look at it, regulators are certainly right to focus on biometric identification as being a technology with a social context that we don’t understand. absolutely not and which needs a regulatory context. Let’s stop and breathe (without having analyzed it for smell.)

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