TrendScholar: More biometrics means more freedom

Published 15 April 2008

Irish scholar researching the history of biometrics and its current uses says that contrary to fears about invasion of privacy, the use of biometrics will lead to enhanced freedom (except for those who try to assume false identities)

Here is an assertion some would consider counterintuitive: “The more biometrics you have the more freedom you will have because you will not be stopped.” Says who? Says Mark Maguire of the National University of Ireland who is currently a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Stanford University. Maguire presented his case for the latest developments in biometric identification in a talk at Boise State University last week. He said that the scanning equipment now proposed for use in Europe is merely a digital refinement of a science that has been around for more than 100 years. After surveying the history of biometrics during the past centuries — biometrics not in today’s digital sense, but in the sense of using body features for identification of individuals — Maguire pointed to the French detective Alphonse Bertillon, who came up with a unified system in 1893 which utilized photography, body measurements, personal history, and finger prints, as ushering in the age of modern biometrics. Bertillon’s approach proved successful well into the twentieth century.

Now, with the twin issues of immigration and terrorism, European nations are seeking high-tech means to deny access to their countries by foreign nationals who may lack proper authorization. The new technology is a system of digital automation that assumes the role of the old time detective. “There is a bill before the European Union Commission to make all foreign nationals carry a biometrics card connected to a European data base, without this you can not collect benefits, you become a non-person,” Maguire said. The problem is that conventional style documents can be forged or stolen, and immigrants using such documents are becoming problematic. This has led to the development of the virtual fence, a system of biometric identification cards now used in European countries that positively identifies the bearer of the card as a person having the right to cross a political boundary or to gain access to certain benefits. It will no longer be possible to assume the identity of a lawful person or cross into a country with fake identification. This system is being touted as a virtual fence, far more effective than a real physical barrier.

Maguire is associated with the Western Institute for Irish studies and has been researching biometric security and immigration in connection with Stanford University’s anthropology department.