Major EC report outlines biometrics challenge ahead

30 Mar 2005

Introducing biometrics involves a number of social, technological and legal challenges that must be addressed in the near future, a major new EC study has found.

The document, Biometrics at the Frontiers: Assessing the Impact on Society argues that deploying biometric identification technology is consistent with the targets set out in the Lisbon Strategy for Europe to become the world’s most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010.

Biometric systems automatically recognise individuals based on physiological characteristics. The study analyses four biometric identifiers: fingerprint, face, iris and DNA. Each has different strengths and weaknesses, it says, “making each one more suitable for certain applications than for others”. All four can be expected to be more widely available in the foreseeable future.

The study contends that biometrics will substantially help in making Europe’s borders more secure, facilitating border crossing and enhancing trust in identification documents. It calls for an approach that brings together different policy areas – security, industrial policy, competitiveness and competition policy – to ensure that Europe benefits from government and EU initiatives related to biometric technologies.

Several challenges await: on the economic side, the report points out the role EU member states can play in assisting the emergence of a vibrant European biometrics industry, creating jobs and promoting competition.

The report also identifies a lack of independent empirical data about the technology. It says there is an urgent need to conduct large-scale field trials to ensure that biometric systems are deployed successfully.

A considerable social challenge involves making biometric applications acceptable to citizens, by setting out their purpose and limitations clearly and understandably. There is a need to understand better the long-term importance of biometrics in order to ensure its benevolent deployment.

At the same time, it points out the risk of creating social exclusion for a small but significant part of the population. This could be because citizens choose not to use the required biometrics or are prevented from doing so by factors such as age or disability. The report recommends that future systems should endeavour to minimise social exclusion.

A further challenge centres on privacy and data protection. The report adds that a reinforced legal framework covering these issues may be required in order to allay public concern over a “surveillance society”. It refers to fears that biometric data would be linked to other personal information, which could then be open to abuse.

However, the report claims that biometrics, by their nature, can actually enhance privacy. “This is because biometrics, if properly used, can establish identity without connecting this identity to other data sets such as social security number, driver’s licence and so on. Moreover, in verification mode biometric systems are able to authenticate a person’s access rights without revealing his identity.”

The study also notes that biometric identification is not perfect and, therefore, neither is biometric security. It’s an acknowledgement of concerns of privacy groups and other security experts voiced elsewhere. Professor Fred Piper, director of Information Security at Royal Holloway, University of London, outlined some of these shortcomings in a recent interview with “Use of biometric data is sensible; biometrics do attempt to recognise the individual, but the technology will not be 100pc accurate. There will be false acceptances and false rejections and those are unavoidable,” he said.

The report was compiled by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre at the request of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs and will be presented to it today. The complete report, key findings and recommendations can be downloaded at

By Gordon Smith