A Step Back for Biometrics

The debate over BAA’s proposal to fingerprint passengers at Heathrow’s new fifth terminal is a sign of the times. It’s part of the growing dilemma of how to optimise the balance between security, privacy and convenience.

BAA claim that the extra security measure is needed to authenticate that the person arriving at a gate is the same one that checked in, thereby preventing domestic passengers from switching boarding passes with international travellers in the shared passenger lounge.

Passport checks are clearly not sufficient, so just how do you design a system that’s fast, easy, reliable and secure? Fingerprints seem a reasonable approach, especially if the system is secure and they’re thrown away after 24 hours (though one has to question whether four of them need to be taken).

A few years ago, the Co-op retail supermarket trialled fingerprint reading with customers without any great fuss. At the time they claimed it to be “the least squeamish and the most acceptable” biometric technology.

So what’s changed? Perhaps it’s our perception of how far organisations can be trusted – or not – to secure our sensitive personal data. Or maybe it’s because privacy is now much higher on everyone’s agenda.

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I'm wondering how long it might take for fingerprints to be devalued for forensic purposes. The more times they are routinely taken, especially if the handling process is less than robust, the more plausible that a lawyer could claim their client had been framed. Sir James Crosby's report http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/media/6/7/identity_assurance060308.pdf counters this by recommending only holding a non-unique representation of the biometric data. But do current systems do this? And who can assure us that is so? I note that Privacy International is suggesting in http://www.privacyinternational.org/article.shtml?cmd[347]=x-347-561080 that passengers protect their fingerprints by using glue.