Public still unaware of biometrics

Despite widespread media coverage of biometrics since last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a new national survey shows that only half of 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 was commissioned by SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. The first poll was conducted Sept. 18-30, 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks, and the second, Aug. 15-18, 2002.

Despite the public's lack of familiarity, personal experience with biometrics rose slightly from 3 percent in 2001 to 5 percent, representing 10 million people, in 2002, said Alan Westin, a retired Columbia University professor of public law and government who helped develop and oversee the poll. And although there were slight declines of acceptance during the year, public support of law enforcement using biometrics for anti-terrorism measures or crime prevention remained high — 86 percent in 2001 and 80 percent in 2002.

The survey also reported strong public insistence that privacy safeguards be considered. Eighty percent of respondents in 2001 and 73 percent in 2002 believed that society will likely adopt such safeguards if and when biometric technologies are widely used, Westin said.

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