On a bio-metric database

I recently read about the Boston police force’s use of facial recognition in safeguarding a music festival, which is great. But it also uses the system to catch teenagers illegally breaking into the event. This is troubling since it violates the right to privacy. Yes, we need to decide how much of our freedom we need to surrender for a sense of security, but if I feel that I’m being constantly watched and scrutinized, I would feel afraid rather than safe. Who knows which kind of bad things I’m up to without even realizing it? even the assurance that I’m a good person and therefore that I have nothing to hide won’t dispel my fears of being exposed to someone who might use the system against me.

But that’s exactly the problem, isn’t it? we have a tool (a bio-metric database) that might improve security tenfold, but that could also eradicate any shred of personal security and privacy in the wrong hands. What is the probability of this tool will not being misused by anyone in an imperfect world? probably substantial. What about a perfect world? well, in a perfect world we wouldn’t need it in the first place.

So we have a great tool to catch bad guys. Why do you oppose it? Don’t you want what is good for society?

“Good” and “Bad” are relative terms. And the one who decides what “bad” means is the person controlling the tool. Is homosexuality a bad thing? it’s not up to you to decide. It’s up to the man with the gun. What about loitering? fornication? family violence? abortion? honor-killing?  I’m pretty sure you have a very solid opinion about these issues, but it’s not your call. It’s someone else’s. Since all these issues are controversial, this person just might not think like you, and this is why I do not trust people who would harm me for the alleged benefit of society as a whole.

So we have a great tool for identifying people. Isn’t that useful?

Really? where’s the empirical evidence for that?  Let’s take all the unresolved police cases and count how many of them could be cracked with a bio-metric database. The database can’t be used for all crimes, because you would need to compare its data against forensic evidence from the crime scene (fingerprints? DNA samples? surveillance camera footage?). How much can we crack, then? I don’t know, but if we’re talking about 90%, then, yes, a bio-metric database would be very useful. If it’s a mere 10%, it probably won’t worth the money spent on it. Anywhere between these two extremes is worth considering depending on how much we are willing to sacrifice and if we’re prepared to face the risks inherent in the database’s abuse against us.

So we have a great tool. How can we make sure it won’t be used improperly?

Ah, the million dollar question at last! Great, so let’s break it into pieces. First, generating a bio-metric ID that would authenticate that I am who I am claiming to be, doesn’t require a database in the first place. A smart card has enough capacity to contain the relevant information and that would be the end of it.

Second, if we nonetheless decide to maintain such database, it should be 100% off-line and heavily secured, both informatically and physically, given that our personal information is both valuable and vulnerable. If any authorized authority (such as the police or intelligence agencies) would like to use it, it should request the database maintainer’s permission. If the maintainer considers their request just and reasonable, s/he would grant the minimal permissions temporarily and log both the request and the database’s responses. This way, the guilty party can be found immediately if anyone claims the database was abused against her/him.

So we agree on a bio-metric ID and an offline database?

No, I’m still against both, but this is the lesser evil, as far as I’m concerned. The very existence of such a database is troubling, because it assumes we are all potential criminals. How many criminals are out there? 90% of the general population? 1%? Is that 1% worth the effort and expenses of harassing the other 99%? shouldn’t recording only first-time offenders be enough (as is done today in any case)? If you ask me, I would rather use the resources expended on creating and maintaining the database for preventing crime from happening in the first place.


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