There has been a fairly fervent acceleration in planned biometric data collection in recent months. If you’re not worried about it, you should be.
In fact, as silly as it sounds, try to be Following worried about it that seems normal. After all, for-profit biometric data collection has seen an astonishing degree of standardization over the past decade. The idea of Apple scanning your fingerprint daily once seemed surprising. This is now how we unlock our banking app and laptop – unless, of course, we do it with our face. It has become common.
We’ve adopted FaceID, fingerprint scanning, and similar features specifically because they’re convenient. No password, no problem.
Corporations and businesses have seen it, and now convenience is one of the top two reasons commonly cited for adopting biometric data collection – the other is public safety, which we’ll get to later. Quick biometric scans, we’re told, make things faster and easier.
In order to save time, a number of primary schools across the UK have recently implementation of facial scanning for lunch payment. Several schools ended up suspending the program after data privacy experts and parents pushed back. They argued that the convenience wasn’t exactly worth the price of accumulating an entire database of young children’s faces stored on a server somewhere. And they are right.
Music for your ears, a palm print for your ticket
Last September, US ticketing company AXS announced a flagship program to use Amazon One fingerprint scanners at the Red Rocks Amphitheater as an optional alternative to printed or mobile concert tickets (with plans to expand into other locations in the coming months). The decision was upheld immediate resistance both privacy experts and musicians, and it wasn’t the first flashpoint on biometric data collection in the live music industry.
In 2019, major promoters LiveNation and AEG (which coordinates major festivals like Coachella) withdrew from plans to invest in and implement facial recognition technology at concerts after public outcry from fans and artists.
But the battle over the use of biometric recognition during live shows is far from settled. When the coronavirus pandemic sent professional sports executives who depend on full stadiums back to the drawing board, their new plans often incorporated mass facial recognition. Faces would replace tickets, apparently making everyone more immune to the virus.
These frames are determined. Dutch football team AFC Ajax is seeking to reinstall its facial recognition pilot program which was initially halted by data protection regulators. Henk van Raan, Chief Innovation Officer of Ajax’s home arena, Amsterdam ArenA, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, “I hope we use this coronavirus pandemic to change the rules. The coronavirus is a bigger enemy than [any threat to] privacy.”
This is terrible reasoning, because the risks posed to our privacy are in no way mitigated or diminished by our virus risk.
In the same article, Shaun Moore, CEO of facial recognition provider Trueface, described his conversations with professional sports executives as extremely concerned about touchpoints avoiding handing over credentials, citing the risk of virus transmission. when scanning ticket barcodes.
It’s overkill, and you don’t have to be an epidemiologist to call it one. When the main event involves a large crowd of people shouting and cheering next to each other, it’s probably not the momentary covert interaction when an agent scans a ticket that’s worth worrying about. As the safety argument crumbles, so does the convenience argument. The simple fact is that our lives are not exponentially and significantly improved by replacing a mobile ticket with our palm print. That extra five seconds is a moot point.
It’s interesting to see van Raan speak so directly about using the pandemic to bypass privacy protections and concerns. But his reasoning is chilling and flawed.
Yes, the coronavirus is a real threat, but it is not an “enemy”. He is not embodied nor does he have a motive. It’s a virus. It is beyond human control. In terms of insurance, it is an “act of God”. And it’s used to justify something that’s very much under human control: the huge increase in biometric data collection under the guise of public safety or convenience.
Public Safety and Free Societies
Public safety is often the reason for imposing increased biometric surveillance. In August, U.S. lawmakers submit a mandate this would require automakers to include passive technology in new cars to prevent drunk drivers from starting their vehicles. This “passive” technology could end up being anything from eye-scanning devices and breathalyzers to an infrared sensor that tests blood alcohol levels through the skin.
Of course, it’s a seemingly noble cause with a respectable motive. The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drunk driving kills nearly 10,000 people a year; the European Commission lists a similar number for the EU.
But where does all this data go? Where is it stored? Who is it sold to and what do they plan to do with it? The privacy risks are too great.
The pandemic has erased many barriers that stood in the way of the adoption of mass biometric data collection, and the consequences will be disastrous for civil liberties if it is allowed to continue in this way. The intensity of surveillance is escalating in record time, making governments and for-profit corporations privy to the most private details of our lives and bodies.
A mobile ticket is enough oversight – it tells the system that you entered the room at a specific time, after all. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken! And don’t add biometric data collection just because you can, on the pretext of not spreading germs.
Give as little biometric data as possible, period. It’s not enough to just avoid giving your biometrics to Google or Amazon in particular, given those companies’ abysmal records on, for example, basic human rights and civil liberties.
A small company unaffiliated with your typical tech giant may seem less threatening, but don’t let that fool you. The moment Amazon or Google acquire this company, they acquire your biometrics and everyone else’s with it. And we are back where we started.
A secure society does not need to be a heavily guarded society. We’ve built increasingly safer and healthier societies for centuries without using a single video camera. And beyond security, such detailed and individualized surveillance is the death knell for a society that values civil liberties.
Maybe that’s what it all boils down to. A free and open society is not without risks – it is arguably one of the major tenets of Western political thought since the Enlightenment. These risks are far preferable to those of living in a heavily guarded society.
In other words, there is no way out of the biometric grid we are heading towards. Now is the time to stop the slide by regulating and eliminating the collection of unnecessary biometric data, especially where for-profit corporations are involved.