Biometric scans raise spectre of Big Brother

Jun 10 2008 by Nic Paton Print This Article

As the FBI embarks on a $1bn programme to build the world's largest computer database of peoples' physical characteristics, UK employers are being warned they need to think long and hard before introducing biometric technology such as iris, fingerprint and palm scans into the workplace.

British HR and employment law organisation Croner has said employers are increasingly turning to such technologies to enhance their security within the workplace, but there has as yet been little thought given to the possible data protection and human rights ramifications of doing this.

Biometric technologies can identify people by measuring an aspect of their anatomy or physiology through, for example, automatic fingerprint identification or iris and retina scanning.

The data captured is then converted into a biometric template against which the part of the body is compared when it is scanned.

The possible uses of the technology are wide-reaching and, in addition to protecting sensitive information, include controlling access to buildings and clocking-in systems.

Last month the FBI announced it was to spend $1bn building the world's largest computer database of such physical characteristics, a project that observers warned would give the government unprecedented abilities to identify individuals both within the U.S and people coming in from abroad.

Critics have expressed concern that people's bodies will become de facto national identification cards and have argued that such initiatives should not proceed without proof that the technology really can pick a criminal out of a crowd.

Part of this 10-year project will see the agency retain, upon request by employers, the fingerprints of employees who have undergone criminal background checks, so that they can be notified if employees have had any brushes with the law.

Within the UK, some employers are already looking to introduce such biometric systems to combat security breaches, said Croner, but any organisation doing so needed to be fully aware of the potential ramifications.

More widely, the UK Border Agency recently announced the use of fingerprint checks on all visa applicants.

So far 10,000 visa applicants have been identified that had previously been fingerprinted in connection with UK immigration or asylum cases.

Some schools have also introduced automated fingerprint testing systems into libraries for the loan of books and for cashless catering.

When introducing a new system using biometric technology, employees needed to be informed of the reasons for its introduction, how it works and the benefits to both employer and worker, advised Croner.

It is also good practice for the employer to hold meetings with staff to demonstrate it and answer any questions concerning its operation. It may be a good idea, too, to trial it before implementing it fully.

Employees, Croner added, will need to be reassured that their personal data (such as their fingerprints) will only be used for the purposes specified by the employer and that the information will be kept secure.

And employers need to ensure there are high standards of security in place to protect the information from being used for unlawful reasons or for any reasons which have not been communicated to the employees.

Finally, the information has to be protected from accidental loss, destruction or damage but that any biometric data is destroyed when it is no longer needed.

Gillian Dowling, employment consultant with Croner, said: "Advances in technology mean that this is now a realistic means of protecting property, data and personnel for employers and is no longer the exclusive preserve of high-security areas.

"Although it may sound futuristic, if the introduction is handled properly the benefits can be seen at all levels of an organisation in improved efficiency and security," she added.