Biometric whitewash gathers pace
Mark Ballard / The Register | May 23 2006
Europe has passed the "tipping point" over which citizens fall head over heels in love with the idea of a society regulated by biometric identity scanners, according to a survey published today.
The survey was designed, commissioned and issued by LogicaCMG, a firm with a considerable interest in promoting biometric technology. It provided evidence that European citizens were "catching up" with the US in accepting biometric security checks as a part of every day life.
The study, however, relied on data produced in the mid-90s by Dr. Alan Westin, an academic with the Centre for Social and Legal Research, that showed how keen US citizens were on biometric controls. More recent data from Westin shows that citizens aren't quite so eager to be scanned.
The LogicaCMG study failed to mention Westin's 2001 and 2002 surveys* which, though demonstrating "substantial support" for biometric ID and crime prevention, relied on qualified findings. People were not happy with the idea of police using automatic facial recognition technology to pick people out of sports games, for example. In fact, overall support for biometrics had declined, according to the 2001 and 2002 studies.
"This subtle shift in attitudes appears to conform with other research which also suggests a reemergence of privacy/civil liberties concerns as the events of September 2001 recede further into memory," Westin reported.
LogicaCMG, which set up an identity practice last September to cash in on interest in biometrics among governments, did not consider civil liberties issues. It said European consumers where "highly positive about the changes that biometric technology can have on their lives". The researchers also said citizens were "convinced" of the safety and accuracy of the sort of biometric technology being wired into identity cards, passports.
In addition, they were in "eager anticipation" for their eyes to be scanned at borders and their fingerprints to be taken at supermarket checkouts.
The LogicaCMG questions, on which it had input, but which were attributed to Vanson Bourne, "a specialist research-based IT marketing consultancy", seem designed to retrieve positive answers.
"Do you think your fingerprints are more secure than your signature as a method of proving who you are?" asked the survey.
It is not a question that can be denied easily. Accordingly, around 90 per cent of respondents said, "Yes." Ergo, LogicaCMG sees a European population in support of biometric cards.
Westin, on the other hand, asked: "Which of these two views comes closest to your own about finger-imaging: helps protect against fraud; treats people like presumed criminals; don't know".
Of those asked, 77 per cent thought fingerprint biometrics would protect people against fraud, 20 per cent thought it treated people like presumed criminals and 4 per cent did not know.
Westin's 133 pages of survey results showed many subtle qualifications of what LogicaCMG believes is widespread support for ID cards. Moreover, the reservations about biometrics and its incarnations, like ID cards, have grown as people learn more about them.
Westin showed that even a few years ago when the technology was still new to the popular imagination and less well understood, support for biometrics was falling as people learned more about the implications for civil liberties.
LogicaCMG has already won what is thought to be a £multi-billion contract to supply ID cards to an unnamed country in the Middle East. The firm will not reveal the identity of the government customer. It has its eyes on numerous £multi-billion European government contracts that rely on public support, including the British ID card scheme.
It also installed an optional biometric fast lane at the customs in Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. That was five years ago. A mere 20,000 people have enrolled to use it, whereas 42.5m people used the airport last year. What does that say about how eager the Europeans are for biometrics?
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