On Fingerprinting (and other biometrics)

For some reason, people treat having their fingerprints taken (and stored) as a huge privacy issue. Specifically, I see this attitude in two kinds of places: “I’m not visiting/have issues visiting the USA because they take your fingerprints on entry”, and in local discussions regarding the legislation for a national biometrics database. I would like to take a look at some of the myths and paranoia regarding this but first two data points about me which should show where I am coming from:

  • I have never been involved in any police investigation, and so have never had my fingerprints taken in a police station.
  • The Israeli government has my fingerprints on file. I gave them voluntarily to be able to use the fast-automated-path for Israeli border control. I estimate that with all my traveling, it has probably saved me several hours by now.
  • The US government has my fingerprints on file. As opposed to the Israeli government, which only has my right hand on file, the US government has both because of the recently updated procedure wherein they take all ten fingerprints.

Now, these are the places I know have my fingerprints on file. There could be numerous government and non-government agencies which have taken my fingerprints. This is due to an often ignored fact regarding fingerprints: the common human leaves fingerprints on pretty much everything we touches. We’re a disgusting species, I guess?

Any agency which wanted my fingerprints and did not want to tell me probably could have had them. They could not use them to identify as me, because border patrol agents actually look at me, and then my passport. Anyone who could have forged a passport well enough to fool them, can probably, I don’t know, offer me a drink, or something, and get my fingerprints that way? I go to coffee shops and restaurants quite a bit, so it should not be difficult.

Given that anyone who really wants my ‘prints can freakin’ have them, I don’t see the point of avoiding giving them in any place which is willing to give me privileges for them (visiting the US is not something the US has to allow, and while entering Israel is something Israel has to allow, giving me a fast path is certainly a privilege). I think the biometric legislation is a huge money and time waste, but there are worst time wasters I’d prefer my elected officials fight. I think the USA visitation procedure is expensive and ineffective, but that’s not a moral objection — it’s a utilitarian one, and I would be happy if Obama forced the INS and TSA to make US travel more fun. OTOH, Obama has bigger issues on his plate too, so them’s the breaks.

Please stop whining that your privacy is violated when your fingerprints are taken. That’s the old school privacy, the one which does not exist anymore. Security cameras will photograph you, and the pictures will remain in the database forever. Anything you do in a public place is public. Yes, that includes touching stuff and leaving your sweat on it.

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3 Responses to On Fingerprinting (and other biometrics)

  1. jdb says:

    I have issues visiting the US because I will need to go through the ill-managed security policies which do more harm than good. This is what is usually meant by the shortcut “take my fingerprint”. I do not think the chosen technology is really relevant in this case.

    There are more than a million names on “the no fly watch list”. This list is growing by 20 000 entries every month and there is no way to know why neither how a name gets added by the government agencies.

    When Mandela, Edward Kennedy, Cat Stevens are still on the lists despite the media attention, you get hints that this list is bonkers. Or the list is used as a coercition tool for americans who do not happen to agree with the bush administration. Then you have commons names such as Gary Smith, and John Williams which generates many false positive and many hours of interrogations and harrassement. This last point directly concerns me.

    Sources from the aclu.org, huffingtonpost.com, nytimes.com and french and italian established newspaper,

    Regards,

  2. fellow citizen says:

    a) your biggest fallacy is confusing james-bond security with everyday security. I know james bond can get my fingerprints, but it would be really expensive to hire him to do it, so in practice this is method is limited to a small number of people. Getting the fingerprints of every citizen in the country by james bond methods is not nearly worth it.
    b) which brings us to the question of what value there actually is in getting everyone’s fingerprints. I you leave out making immigration procedures quicker, I can’t really see what the benefit is. All security is a trade-off – what are we trading our privacy for in this case?
    c) one more thing: As forensic evidence, fingerprints are circumstantial. As you say we leave them everywhere we go, and the accuracy of forensic fingerprint id is say 99.99%. This means every fingerprint found at a murder scene matches 600 israelis on average. if one of those people happened to be near the crime scene and belongs to a minority, I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes. thus fingerprints make it easier to convict the innocent.
    I would rather stand in line another 5 minutes before going into the duty-free shops.

  3. Alex Levy says:

    I think the most cogent objection to fingerprint collection is that centralization of biometric information, in any form, encourages two bad trends:

    1. Government will always want to use it more. The moment your fingerprints are on file somewhere, every agency that MIGHT want them, can have them, given a court order (or, in these days, a hastily-written “reform” to the law). You no longer have control over how the government will use or abuse that information.

    2. As government (and, consequently, business) becomes more dependent on centralized personal information, it becomes a greater target for attack. Today, someone who can fake your fingerprint might be able to sneak into a data center. In ten years, if everyone’s fingerprints are on file, would they be able to impersonate you at a border crossing? At the Social Security office? At your bank?

    So it’s not about the fingerprints per se being highly sensitive and dangerous information. It’s about what reasonable expectation you have that your fingerprints, collected for one purpose, won’t be abused in other ways in the unforeseeable future. Right now, that expectation is nil.

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