Biometrics awareness still low

Results are seen as benchmarking survey on public's attitudes toward the technology

SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics

Despite widespread media coverage of biometrics since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a new national survey shows that still only half the general public is aware of such technologies. However, the survey also indicates that fighting terrorism and identity fraud are the "two strongest drivers" for supporting greater government and private-sector use of biometrics.

The public opinion poll — commissioned by SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics — was conducted in two waves: the first occurred Sept. 18-30, 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks, and the second, Aug. 15-18, 2002, nearly three months ago.

Alan Westin, a retired Columbia University public law and government professor who help develop and oversee the poll, called it the first representational national survey of biometrics. He said it should be considered an initial benchmarking survey because, within a decade, the technology will evolve and the debate will mature.

Following the terrorist attacks, many officials looked toward biometrics — the use of electronic devices to measure some physical or behavioral characteristics for identification or verification purposes — as a possible security solution. Airports, law enforcement agencies, governments and private-sector companies have implemented or are testing a wide range of technologies — including facial and voice recognition, iris scanning, hand geometry, and fingerprinting.

But an enormous debate exists over the accuracy and benefits as well as the intrusive nature of some biometric technologies into people's privacy.

Despite public lack of familiarity, personal experience with biometric rose slightly from 3 percent in 2001 to 5 percent, representing 10 million people, in 2002, Westin said. And although there were slight declines of acceptance over the year, public support for its use by law enforcement for antiterrorist or crime prevention remained steadily high (86 percent in 2001 and 80 percent in 2002).

Westin also said there were "commanding majorities," ranging from 77 percent to 88 percent, for biometric technology in verifying passport identifications, access to government buildings, for airport check-in, and to obtain driver's licenses.

Regarding identity theft, Westin said 95 percent did see it as a serious problem, with 21 percent of the respondents — representing 42 million people — describing themselves as victims last year. According to the survey, the public also supported private-sector use of such technologies — credit card firms, ATMs, and employee checks — although to a lower degree than government.

The survey also reported high public insistence that privacy safeguards be considered. Eighty percent in 2001 and 73 percent in 2002 believe it likely that society will adopt such safeguards if and when biometrics are widely used, said Westin.

Future levels of support, he added, will depend on how the public perceives the levels of accuracy and error in specific applications, the likelihood of future terrorist attacks, whether government uses are proper, and whether safeguards operate effectively.

Rebecca Dornbusch, deputy director of the International Biometrics Industry Association, said the industry largely supported the survey's findings. She said a more contemplative view is emerging among the public and politicians, who are taking a holistic approach toward biometrics. Right after Sept. 11, she said many politicians were viewing it as a panacea to the problem.

The industry also understands that privacy is important, adding it developed such principles three years ago. "The industry is aware there can be potential privacy implications, if used inappropriately," she said.

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