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Under the thumb?

BBC | November 13, 2006
Sean Coughlan

Hiring a car can now mean leaving a fingerprint. And check-out staff are scanning the customers as well as the shopping. Biometrics are entering every day life.

Getting your fingerprints taken would once have meant only one thing. You were helping the police with their inquiries. Now such "biometric" identification is entering the mainstream of every day life.

If you want to hire a car at Stansted Airport, you now need to give a fingerprint.

The scheme being tested by Essex police and car hire firms, is not voluntary. Every car rental customer must take part.

These are stored by the hire firms - and will be handed over to the police if the car is stolen or used for another crime.

Detective Sergeant Vic Murphy, from the CID team at Stansted Airport, says it's a response to criminal gangs targeting airport car hire firms - where cars are driven away using false passports, false licences and false credit cards.

"It's not intrusive really. It's different - and people need to adjust to it. It's not Big Brother, it's about protecting people's identities. The police will never see these thumbprints unless a crime is committed."

Print works

But it hasn't been well received by all customers. Ciaran Moore from Belfast was "astounded" when he was asked for his fingerprint. He thought the staff were joking.

Making fingerprints compulsory, he says, is "disproportionate" and he has written to complain.

Mr Moore says that if a fingerprint is needed because cars are being hired with forged passports - then by the same logic, fingerprints should be required for getting on planes.

And he also has concerns about the storing of information such as fingerprints. What happens if someone steals your biometrics?

But the police say the extra security check is reducing fraud. And Europcar, one of the participating firms, says it could be rolled out to all its other locations if the pilot scheme is successful.

In many ways this is the debate over biometrics and ID cards in microcosm. On one side, there's the pragmatic security approach - arguing that old-style checks are no longer effective in a highly-mobile, hi-tech society, and the innocent have nothing to fear.

And on the other, there's an instinctive suspicion about handing over such personal information and about where this security-first approach will lead.

Touch paper

But regardless of any ideological arguments, the use of biometric technology - where someone is identified by a physical characteristic - is already entering the mainstream.

Biometric UK passports were introduced this year, using facial mapping information stored on a microchip, and more than a million have already been issued.

A shop in the Bluewater centre in Kent has used a fingerprint checking scheme to tackle credit card fraud. And in Yeovil, Somerset, fingerprinting has been used to cut town-centre violence, with scanners helping pick out troublemakers.

It's not just about crime. Biometric recognition is also being pitched as more convenient for shoppers.

Pay By Touch allows customers to settle their supermarket bill with a fingerprint rather than a credit card. With three million customers in the United States, this payment system is now being tested in the UK, in three Co-op supermarkets in Oxfordshire.

Terror fears

Once a customer registers, and has their finger scanned, they can use a fingerpad for payment, with the money directly debited from their bank account.

In the United States, the firm has also launched a version for online shopping, with a touchpad attached to a home computer - with the aim of reducing identity fraud.

The drive towards using biometrics is also reflected in an acceleration of identification research.

"It seems as if it's going to become part of everyday life," says Dr Maria Pavlou, at the University of Sheffield, the base for the International Centre for Advanced Research in Identification Science.

But no system is without flaws - and this, rather than blocking the use of biometrics, will mean developing multiple checking systems in the future, says Dr Pavlou.

"If someone worked with their hands, such as a builder, there could be cuts or marks that make it difficult to use fingerprints," she says. So identification systems, such as for airport security, would need to be combined with iris or facial recognition.

Iris recognition - using an image of the eye - is particularly reliable, says Dr Pavlou. And it's already being tested in Manchester and Heathrow airports.

There are also projects investigating identifying individuals by their voice and how they walk.

Human rights

While the technology might be emerging, so are the difficult questions? Where will this information be stored? Who will have access? Should there be a centralised control? Why should the records of innocent people be kept in this way?

Human rights organisation Liberty warns that there has been insufficient public debate about the expansion in use of biometrics - and that so far "there are many more questions than answers".

"Is this technology really necessary for what they want to achieve?" says a Liberty spokesperson. "The technology is moving so quickly - but is society being consulted?"

Once these biometric databases are gathered, will the police be able to gain access on "fishing expeditions" for information, asks Liberty. And the campaigning group rejects the argument that "if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear".

"Just because you value your own privacy, it doesn't mean that it's about hiding criminality."

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