A double-edged sword

In the post-Sept. 11 world, biometrics has finally managed to transform its image. Once seen as the ultimate invasion-of-privacy tool, many now view it as a valid security shield that can actually protect citizens from identity thieves and other malevolent types.

But that doesn't mean privacy is no longer a major issue of concern in biometric applications. Privacy advocates warn against the dangers of biometric information being misused or combined with personal data in large databases in such a way as to make it a de facto national identifier.

"One of the reasons privacy is such a problem in this country is that the Social Security number has been so widely adopted," said David Pierce, research director for the Independence Institute. "But if you end up substituting this national ID database and, in effect, turn it into a national biometric database, then the possibility of collecting too much data on individuals becomes all the more serious."

Still, privacy advocates recognize the potential benefits biometrics offers for safeguarding privacy. To ensure that the technology is beneficial and not abused, they suggest that agencies adhere to the following guidelines:

n Adopt strict procedures to ensure that the biometric data is used only for its core purpose and is promptly destroyed when no longer needed.

n Do not share the data with other agencies or with private organizations.

n Keep the biometric data in a separate database and do not link it with other personal identifiers, such as Social Security number, date of birth or mother's maiden name.

n Provide users with an easily accessible privacy policy specific to biometrics that includes all fair information practices.

n If biometric data is somehow compromised, make sure there are procedures in place for users to file a complaint and receive adequate redress.

n Consider having a privacy audit performed. This will provide an objective view of whether system security is appropriate for the data being held, and it can help highlight potential privacy weak points.

n Use biometrics in tandem with a public-key infrastructure or password system. That way if biometric data is corrupted, a user has another way to prove his or her identity.

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