The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In 1991, the Hungarian constitutional court ruled that a law creating a multi-use personal identification number violated the constitutional right of privacy. The 1997 Portuguese constitution states “Citizens shall not be given an all-purpose national identity number.” In other countries, opposition to the cards combined with the high economic cost and other logistical difficulties of implementing the systems has led to their withdrawal. Massive protests against the Australia card in 1987 resulted in the near collapse of the government. Card projects in South Korea and Taiwan were also stopped after widespread protests. In the United States of America plans to convert the state driver’s license into a nationwide system of identification have stalled because of the stiff resistance from a broad coalition of civil society groups.

Biometrics is the identification or verification of someone’s identity on the basis of physiological or behavioural characteristics. Biometrics involves comparing a previously captured unique characteristic of a person to a new sample provided by the person. This information is used to authenticate or verify that a person is who they said they were (a one-to-one match) by comparing the previously stored characteristic to the fresh characteristic provided. It can also be used for identification purposes where the fresh characteristic is compared against all the stored characteristics (a one-to-many match). New biometric technology attempts to automate the identification or verification process by converting the provided biometric into an algorithm, which is then used for matching purposes. The computer matching technique necessarily produces either false positives, where a person is incorrectly identified as someone else, or false negatives, where a person who is meant to be identified by the system is not correctly identified.

The two error rates are dependent, so, for example, reducing the number of false positives increases the number of false negatives. The tolerance level is adjusted depending on the need for security in the application. The most popular forms of biometric identity are fingerprints, retina/iris scans, hand geometry, voice recognition, and digitized (electronically stored) images. The technology is gaining interest from governments and companies because, unlike other forms of ID such as cards or papers, it can be more difficult to alter or tamper with one’s own physical or behaviour characteristics. Important questions remain, however, about the effectiveness of the automated biometric matching techniques, particularly for large-scale applications.

Critics also argue that widespread deployment of biometric identification technology could remove the veil of anonymity or pseudo-anonymity in most daily transactions through the creation of an electronic trail of people’s movements and habits.

Biometric schemes are being implemented across the world. The technology is widely used in small settings for access control to secure locations such as a nuclear facility or bank vault. It is increasingly being used for broader applications such as retail outlets, government agencies, childcare centres, police forces and automated-teller machines. Spain has commenced a national fingerprint system for unemployment benefits and healthcare entitlements.

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