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    Economist: The Difference Engine: Dubious security

    The Economist takes a hard look at biometrics and considers whether the different types of biometric technology are effective security measures. (The Economist references a recent study from the National Research Council of the National Academies: “Biometric Recognition: Challenges and Opportunities.”):

    THANKS to gangster movies, cop shows and spy thrillers, people have come to think of fingerprints and other biometric means of identifying evildoers as being completely foolproof. In reality, they are not and never have been, and few engineers who design such screening tools have ever claimed them to be so. Yet the myth has persisted among the public at large and officialdom in particular. […]

    Authentication of a person is usually based on one of three things: something the person knows, such as a password; something physical the person possesses, like an actual key or token; or something about the person’s appearance or behaviour. Biometric authentication relies on the third approach. Its advantage is that, unlike a password or a token, it can work without active input from the user. That makes it both convenient and efficient: there is nothing to carry, forget or lose.

    The downside is that biometric screening can also work without the user’s co-operation or even knowledge. Covert identification may be a boon when screening for terrorists or criminals, but it raises serious concerns for innocent individuals. […]

    Another problem with biometrics is that the traits used for identification are not secret, but exposed for all and sundry to see. People leave fingerprints all over the place. Voices are recorded and faces photographed endlessly. Appearance and body language is captured on security cameras at every turn. Replacing misappropriated biometric traits is nowhere near as easy as issuing a replacement for a forgotten password or lost key. In addition, it is not all that difficult for impostors to subvert fingerprint readers and other biometric devices. […]

    What is often overlooked is that biometric systems used to regulate access of one form or another do not provide binary yes/no answers like conventional data systems. Instead, by their very nature, they generate results that are “probabilistic”. That is what makes them inherently fallible. The chance of producing an error can be made small but never eliminated. Therefore, confidence in the results has to be tempered by a proper appreciation of the uncertainties in the system.

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