Incentives matter for data protection, too

The FBI is getting ready to announce the granting of a $1 billion contract to create a massive biometric database, allegedly to better identify criminals and terrorists, reports The privacy problems this presents should be obvious.

“It’s the beginning of the surveillance society where you can be tracked anywhere, any time and all your movements, and eventually all your activities will be tracked and noted and correlated,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology and Liberty Project.

The FBI already has 55 million sets of fingerprints on file. In coming years, the bureau wants to compare palm prints, scars and tattoos, iris eye patterns, and facial shapes. The idea is to combine various pieces of biometric information to positively identify a potential suspect.

A lot will depend on how quickly technology is perfected, according to Thomas Bush, the FBI official in charge of the Clarksburg, West Virginia, facility where the FBI houses its current fingerprint database.

“Fingerprints will still be the big player,” Bush, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, told CNN.

But he added, “Whatever the biometric that comes down the road, we need to be able to plug that in and play.”

The real worry here is not that this information could be collected — it exists and is bound to be compiled somewhere — but that it is being collected on such a massive scale by government, which hopes to centralize its own access to it.

Companies today collect a wide amount of consumer information, much of it surrendered willingly, in exchange for greater convenience — an example of this are supermarket discount cards, which track consumer purchases in exchange for discounts and coupons for items the customer is more likely to buy. Companies that collect such information have a very good incentive to protect such data, because mishandling it leads to angry customers who then take their business elsewhere.

But what incentive do government agencies have? Not only do they not face the competitive discipline of the market, they are also subject to the perverse incentives of most funding by government, which amounts to “use it or lose it,” based on the reasoning that if you don’t use it, you probably don’t need it. So there may be an incentive for agencies that have access to such a database to “do something” with it, and that’s what worrying. (Thanks to Tom Walls for the CNN link.)