Authoritarianism Is Not A Gadget, It’s A State Of Mind

The two dark-skinned young men, unshaven and heavily muscled, looked ominously foreign. No doubt more than one airline passenger breathed deeper in relief when security guards at the Roanoke, Va., airport pulled the men out of line to search their luggage and pat them down — once in the ticket line, again at the security gate and a third time before they boarded the plane. Three “random” searches to take a 20-minute flight.Facial-recognition technology tied to a database of suspect terrorists, though, would have left the young men alone. My black-haired fiancé and his brother are no threat. Their frightening musculature is cheerfully employed shifting furniture for their mom; their closest approach to battle is the world of online computer games. Yet the human element in our security forces instinctively will bristle at their approach until the United States is attacked by blond, blue-eyed Nordic terrorists, activists for reindeer rights or some myth of Aryan superiority.Biometrics are getting a bad rap. Fingerprinting bears the stigma of its association with police procedure. DNA databases bring to mind horrific theories of genetic or racial purity. Facial-recognition cameras call up images of George Orwell's 1984 and omnipresent video surveillance. But biometrics, like any technology, is morally neutral. Any abuses will stem from the human element in our government. And biometric systems could help to control, counter and check those error-prone human elements.Strictly speaking, what is a biometric system? A biometric system uses personal traits or physical characteristics to recognize an individual. The signature on the back of our credit cards is a very primitive biometric; so is any photo ID or mug shot. The human optic nerve is hooked to our own brain's biological facial-recognition database. Bloodhounds track trails of unique individual scents.Examples of more-advanced biometric systems in use include a facial-recognition system used by the West Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to scan applicants for duplicate or fraudulent driver's licenses. The state of Georgia now includes a digital thumbprint on its licenses. Typing and mouse-use patterns also can be used to identify individuals, existing technology likely to be deployed online. Predictive Networks, a Cambridge, Mass., company, has developed software to do just that. High-tech spy thrillers on television and in the movies have acquainted us with the retinal scans, voice prints and hand-geometry scanners just beginning to be deployed. The gambling industry is considering the use of voice-recognition technology to control access to telephone gambling networks, for example. Less-familiar biometric systems include earlobe analysis and body-odor sniffers. But widespread deployment of biometric systems still is part of a sci-fi future.In that future, the trends suggest that biometrics will be a boon to privacy and security in the private sector. In the works is voice-print technology that will recognize only authorized users of long-distance telephone services or brokerage accounts, keeping out snoops. Handprints and iris scans can make it harder for hackers to fool computer networks, expanding the realm of possibility for authorized computer users safely to access sensitive medical records or other data remotely. Thieves of portable items such as cell phones, laptops, cars and credit cards will find their booty useless without the rightful owner's fingerprint to activate them. Most people have trouble remembering the long combinations of random letters and numbers needed for a really secure password. The digital record of one's fingerprint, though, can be scrambled into a unique personal-identification number to foil identity thieves. As the cost of this technology comes down and its accuracy is improved, widespread deployment in the private sector is almost a given wherever current identification systems lag behind security needs.What of the use of biometrics in and by government? Some civil libertarians fear a controlled government database chock-full of biometric data and a nationwide system of scanners and controls from which there is no escape. Religious, political or racial minorities could be hunted down. Rogue police could harass innocents that unwittingly have offended them.Will biometrics facilitate human-rights violations on a trivial or massive scale? The short answer is it could do either, but the risk is no greater than for any other modern identification technology. And it can be controlled. The choice we have is not between zero-risk and risky identification systems. It is a choice between the current systems, which do not prevent government abuses and yet are fraught with security holes and other problems, or more effective modern systems no more liable to abuse than any other.The present reality is that the current system of identification, based on the Social Security number, signature and driver's license, has failed. In a world of open public records and long-distance financial transactions over electronic networks, the Social Security number cannot continue to function as a password. The driver's license cannot be displayed as proof of age or identity over a network. Most importantly for the evolution of systems of identification, the current system has failed to provide the degree of protection against fraud that consumers would like to have. It is proving inadequate for legitimate law-enforcement purposes as well, especially as criminals have increased mobility across jurisdictions. These legitimate purposes of law enforcement include everyday protection against ordinary criminals as well as rarer terrorist events.One way or another, current methods of authentication must be replaced or augmented — perhaps with digital signatures, perhaps with better biometrics (the photo ID and signature already are biometrics of a weak, error-prone sort) or perhaps with some combination.Any system of information collection is subject to abuse. Data collected by the national census can be abused, and was when data was used during World War II to relocate Japanese-Americans. Wiretapping has been abused. Even the technology built into cell phones to help authorities pinpoint the location of 911 callers could be used for nefarious purposes by an evil regime to track innocent people.The dangers and history of government abuses are real. But at the same time they are highly speculative. Given the reality of abuses and their relative rarity in the modern U.S. context, where do we draw the line? The risk that imperfect systems of identification will provide opportunities for fraud, terrorism and other crimes also is real. And these acts, too, violate our rights to security of life and limb as well as property rights. Do we know that the benefits of “leaky” systems in allowing dissidents additional leeway along with criminals will outweigh the costs? The answer probably is different at different times and places throughout history. We only can make a best guess.Do we say, as our rule of thumb, that the government may not collect or use biometric data? That some technologies simply will be off-limits to law enforcement? This would be both unrealistic and ineffective. Some danger of abuse, however remote, extends to any technology wielded by government. Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin managed to create a nightmare world without any electronic biometrics at all. Human beings (neighborhood informants) also can serve as surveillance for low-tech totalitarian police, as in Communist China. Declaring certain technologies off-limits would not resolve the danger of abuse and would prevent government from effectively carrying out legitimate functions.If the answer to preserving freedom is not in declaring certain technology off-limits, where does the answer lie? The battle to preserve civil liberties and rights is more about institutions and legal rights and powers than about this or that technology. The Fourth Amendment does not say that the government may not collect, keep or store information. It says the police must show probable cause and obtain a warrant from a judge to conduct a search. The police are made accountable to the judiciary. This is an institutional solution, an accountability solution, going back to the old idea of checks and balances. Other constitutional principles — the freedom of speech, protection against the confiscation of private property, the right to a jury trial and constitutional protections against torture and cruel and unusual punishments — work together to hold back the human tendencies of those who govern to take more power than we willingly would give.Indeed, biometrics promise to make government more accountable and less likely to misuse private information. Suppose biometric technology were used to restrict the access of government employees to citizens' tax records, criminal records and other files. Logs show which government employees access the files and when. Victims of rogue employees in government offices would stand a better chance of finding who had accessed their records and holding the rogues accountable. Illicit access by hackers coming from outside the system also would be reduced.Because biometrics can help reduce the incidence of fraud and help police track perpetrators of violence in the most high-risk zones, such as airports and nuclear facilities, it may help preserve an open society in other areas. People terrified that criminals lurk among them undetected are not people who will embrace freedom. So long as our law-enforcement networks do not meaningfully help police target and quickly identify wrongdoers, we all will have to endure more random searches, generalized surveillance and heavy regulation.The key to preserving our liberties does not lie with declaring biometrics off-limits for governments or anyone else. It lies in the realm of ideas and beliefs, powers and rights. Authoritarianism is not a gadget, it is a state of mind. Singleton is a lawyer and senior analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Project on Technology and Innovation. She specializes in the analysis of privacy, electronic commerce and telecommunications, and is a frequent and provocative speaker at industry events.