Biometric identification: An Unnecessary Breach of Privacy in Australia

“Fingerprints” by kevin dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Biometric identification is a highly controversial topic. With collection of personal data comes  extreme concern for privacy and unnecessary surveillance (Smyth, 2019). Biometric identification can be used in many different situations; however, reliance on and use of the methods are not universally applicable. The Aadhar Card, a card that stores biometrics, used in India, for example, is used to a greater extent than any methods in the  United States or Australia. The move to large-scale forms of biometric identification like the Aadhar Card is unnecessary for Australia. In a time where privacy is becoming scarce, due to the prevalence of social media and general internet surveillance, increasing reliance on biometrics is limiting, and its shortcomings outweigh any possible benefits of adopting a more rigorous system. 

What is biometric identification? 

Put simply, biometric identification is essentially a system that uses fingerprints, iris scans, facial recognition software, etc., often storing the information in a database. This data is then compared to existing fingerprints or iris scans to identify an individual (Woodward, 2001). This identification can be used for a wide range of functions, which differ from place to place, depending on the permanent issues of each nation.      

India and the Aadhar Card

The Aadhar Card, which, according to National Public Radio, is the “biggest biometric ID system in the world,” was started in response to confusion issues regarding access to welfare and a lack  of registration, which led to a a lack of any identification (Frayer, 2018). According to Frayer (2018), over 1.2 billion Indian citizens have registered for the Aadhar Card and accompanying distinctive identification number by giving fingerprints, eye scans and identifying photos.          

“Karen Bradley in Bengaluru, 8 November 2017” by UK in India is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The uses of these cards are numerous. The unique identification number and information in the cards can be linked online to many different entities and can facilitate fast transactions for things like opening bank accounts, financial transfers, proof of electronic signatures. Furthermore, it makes  citizen participation easier by providing needed identification for voting, etc. Essentially, it allows for everyone to participate in government programs and activities, and makes identifications processes far more efficient (Free Press Journal, 2018).

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the Aadhar card is its attention to the poor citizens of India. It allows poorer citizens to attain a form of identification that can help the person gain access to welfare and government benefits that they are technically entitled to. Because the goal of the government is to get every citizen to enrol, the universal access to the card evens the playing field in a society that is often polarised by extreme separations of class. It allows even citizens of the lowest class, who are often cast aside, to “be counted, to become official, to feel equal to other Indian citizens, regardless of caste” (Frayer, 2018). In better ensuring deserved access to welfare and food rations, and be counted alongside any citizen, the harshness of the system is at least partially remedied. 

However, the Aadhar system is not without fault. It has been found in some cases that the very data that can provide unfettered access to appropriate resources can sometimes have the opposite effect. Although the Aadhar system is stated to be voluntary, it is now associated with certain benefits; making them impossible to access without the card. Furthermore, India has a lack of data protection laws, which makes the collected information that is meant to serve the interests of the citizen incredibly vulnerable, and has resulted in issues like identity theft (Smyth, 2019).  Along with such India-specific issues, the Aadhar Card is plagued by the same issues that come with any biometric identification system. 

 Issues with Biometric Identification

Although use of biometric identification is not and cannot be consistent universally, people find many of the same issues with the systems:

  • Biometric identification relies on the recording of physical data, which many are not comfortable providing. 
  • Even if people are willing to have their personal biometric data collected, there can be issues doing so. For example, the data from the fingerprints collected is not always conclusive for people who participate in manual labor or have been in accidents that dull identifying marks (Woodward, 2001). 
  • Providing data can sometimes be in conflict with an individual’s religious beliefs and practices (Woodward 2001).
  • In a time that is characterised by eliminating stigmas about gender and a general appearance, body classification is limiting and does not reflect a changing society (Beauchamp, 2016). 
  • Safety of an individuals data is unknown, and there have been cases of breaches that result in identity theft, which is one of the issues biometric identification was created to stop (Smyth, 2019).
  • “the accuracy and reliability of many biometric systems are still unknown, causing some to express concern about the potentially serious consequences for an individual who is falsely accepted or rejected by a biometric system” (Australian Law Reform Commission, 2013). 

General privacy of information is perhaps the biggest concern, and it is the issue of privacy that it is at the centre of most biometric identification debates in Australia. Furthermore, if the system relies on people entrusting their data to the government, a reliable system is crucial to protecting this privacy.

Biometric Identification in Australia

“Passport 2” by Craig James is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Many of the issues stated above are at the forefront of debates regarding biometric identification in Australia. While Australia does not have the extensive and centralised system of the Aadhar Card, biometric identification is a central part of border control and anti-terrorist efforts. These concerns followed America’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Because  it was speculated that, had the airport been able to identify the perpetrators, the attacks would not have happened, biometric identification quickly became a more significant part of many countries’ security regulations (Beauchamp, 2016). Although the accuracy is a contested subject, the hope is that biometric identification better disallows impersonation and helps different nations to share information and records about individuals.

E-passport stations are an example of the switch away from the simplicity and objectivity of a simple photo identification passport: an individual must scan his or her fingerprint and look into a camera for facial recognition before being officially allowed into the country (Department of Home Affairs, 2019). If an inconsistencies are found, officials can then cross check any information to ensure there has been no foul play. However, unlike registration for the Aadhar card in India, Australian immigration does not  claim to keep the collected information in a central database, but rather keeps it only for the amount of time needed to compare it to others for correct and thorough identification (Smyth, 2019). Because of flaws in facial recognition, this can sometimes lead to false identification and issues like racial profiling, but the anti-terrorist aspect of biometric identification is largely accepted in Australia and all over the world as a mostly viable way to combat terrorism and crime. 

The backlash with biometric identification comes with suggestion of a more centralised system that would include a database for storage and the linking of one’s identity to different entities. In reference to large systems like Aadhar Card, Smyth (2019) says, “other countries such as Canada, Australia, and the United States, have found similar schemes unworkable because of the serious threat of misuse and strong public opposition” (117). Australia does not have the issues that seem to balance the shortcomings and threat of privacy breach for Indians using the Aadhar Card. There is no prominent cast system that needs to be remedied, birth registration is not an issue, and it is required to vote. Although it could be argued that Australia’s welfare system is greatly flawed, the problem does not call for a system that harvests every citizens data. Essentially, any move to that system would require participation that many Australian citizens would be unwilling to give (assuming a proposed system would be voluntary). Why adopt a system that has already proven to be deeply flawed in its practices of privacy, threatening the nation’s cherished right to privacy, and in it’s accuracy and dependability?

Conclusion

With biometric identification becoming more and more a part of every day practice in society, with increased camera surveillance and thumbprint  and facial recognition software used to unlock the new iPhone, the private sphere is essentially gone (Nayar, 2012). Some biometric identification measures are important to maintaining security, and more drastic measures have benefited other countries like India, but, overall, increased surveillance through biometric identification is unnecessary, and the anxiety surrounding privacy would render it ineffective in Australia, where there is no apparent need for it. When so many other aspects of modern life can be hacked, why put such personal data in danger?

Citations:

BEAUCHAMP, T. (2016). WHEN THINGS DON’T ADD UP: Transgender Bodies and the Mobile Borders of Biometrics. In MIGUEL Y. & TOBIAS S. (Eds.), Trans Studies: The Challenge to Hetero/Homo Normativities (pp. 103-112). Rutgers University Press. Retrieved from http:// www.jstor.org.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/stable/j.ctt19z38xf.10

Biometrics. (2019). Retrieved from https://immi.homeaffairs.gov.au/help-support/meeting-our- requirements/biometrics.

Biometric systems. (2013). Retrieved from https://www.alrc.gov.au/publication/for-your- information-australian-privacy-law-and-practice-alrc-report-108/9-overview-impact-of- developing-technology-on-privacy/biometric-systems/.

Frayer, L., & Khan, F. L. (2018, October 1). India’s Biometric ID System Has Led To Starvation For Some Poor, Advocates Say. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/10/01/652513097/ indias-biometric-id-system-has-led-to-starvation-for-some-poor-advocates-say.

NAYAR, P. (2012). ‘I Sing the Body Biometric’: Surveillance and Biological Citizenship. Economic and Political Weekly, 47(32), 17-22. Retrieved from http:// www.jstor.org.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/stable/23251791

Smyth, S. (2019). Biometrics, surveillance and the law : societies of restricted access, discipline and control . New York: Routledge.

Woodward, J., Webb, K., Newton, E., Bradley, M., Rubenson, D., Larson, K., . . . Steinberg, P. (2001). WHAT CONCERNS DO BIOMETRICS RAISE AND HOW DO THEY DIFFER FROM CONCERNS ABOUT OTHER IDENTIFICATION METHODS? In Army Biometric Applications: Identifying and Addressing Sociocultural Concerns (pp. 21-32). Santa Monica, CA; Arlington, VA; Pittsburgh, PA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from http:// www.jstor.org.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/stable/10.7249/mr1237a.11

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