The Technology of Biometrics

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John Woodward, associate director of the RAND Corp.'s Intelligence Policy Center — and former director of the U.S. Department of Defense Biometrics Management Office — offers Farai Chideya a glimpse of the future of biometric technology.

ED GORDON, host:

Farai also spoke with John Woodward. He is associate director of the RAND Corporation's Intelligence Policy Center. He is also the former director of the United States Department of Defense Biometrics Management Office. Mr. Woodward insists that this technology is fairly simple.

Mr. JOHN WOODWARD (Associate Director, RAND Corporation Intelligence Policy Center): Biometrics refers to automated methods of measuring physical characteristics or personal traits for purposes of human recognition. Probably, the most popular type of biometric would be fingerprint; that's about half of the biometric market, about 43 percent. Other examples would include the face. In other words, we use sophisticated algorithms to take a face, digitize it and then search it against the database; hand geometry involving 90 different measurements of a person's hand; and a biometric that has a certain sex appeal, at least in biometric circles, would be the iris. The iris is the colored part of the eye. It's very distinctive and it can also be used in biometric applications.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

So let me give you an example of something in my life. I took a job once with a small company in a highly secured bank building. I had to have my fingerprints digitally scanned by the bank who owned the building before I could get a building ID to go into work everyday. So was this biometrics, and why or why not?

Mr. WOODWARD: I think that would probably qualify as an example of a biometric application. For security reasons, your fingerprints were taken probably as part of a civil background check. They were probably sent to the FBI National Fingerprint Database, which has the fingerprints of people who have been arrested in the United States; and as part of the background investigation, those fingerprints were checked using computerized systems to determine if you had a criminal record.

CHIDEYA: There was a fairly short-lived government program that was initially called Total Information Awareness, and it allowed government to access private databases. So are my fingerprints now likely to be in government databases, even though I've never been fingerprinted by the government?

Mr. WOODWARD: This is a very good question, and it's one that is very case dependent. If a person has been arrested in the United States for a so-called criteria offense. Now, what is a criteria offense? That's basically if a person has been arrested for a felony or for a serious misdemeanor - as we all know, depending on our age, from watching assorted episodes of Dragnet or Law and Order or CSI - early on in the booking process, fingerprints are taken, specifically, the ten rolled fingerprints. Those fingerprints are stored in a searchable, computerized U.S. government database that's known as the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Okay?

That database is managed by the FBI. It includes fingerprint data on roughly 50 million Americans who have been arrested for those criteria offenses.

There is a very, very large number of Americans who are fingerprinted for other reasons. There's the case that you gave, where you were fingerprinted for a sensitive private sector position; people who want a U.S. government security clearance; school bus drivers; liquor license owners; boxers frequently have to fingerprinted. And the question you pose is what happens to all of those fingerprints? That's an enormous amount of identification data.

But in the case of people who are fingerprinted for the military, for federal government employment, people who are fingerprinted if they are naturalized immigrants intending to be U.S. citizens, those fingerprints are kept and they are stored by the FBI in what's known as the Civil Files.

For other fingerprint submissions, in the case of private sector background investigations, the fingerprints are searched for background investigation purposes and the general rule is they are returned to the organization that requested the fingerprint search.

CHIDEYA: Let me go to an opposition point of view. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, is a non profit watchdog group that looks at privacy online. And they wrote a whole treatise on biometrics. Part of it reads, by far, the most significant negative aspect of biometric ID systems is in their potential to locate and track people physically. A society in which everyone's actions are tracked is not, in principle, free. It may be a livable society, but it would not be our society.

Now, especially given the ongoing debate over government telephone surveillance, is the EFF right that biometrics is dangerous to American freedom or even to the rights that we get from the Constitution?

Mr. WOODWARD: I think the basic issue is how do we use these technologies. So in the example that you gave where biometric technologies can be used to track an individual.

Well, there are times when that can be a very good thing and done for very sound public policy reasons. Classic example is when the police arrest someone and fingerprints are taken. There is a reason why the police authoritatively know that, over half the time when they arrest someone, that person has a prior criminal record.

In my own case, when I was at the Department of Defense, we initiated a system where the military took fingerprints from detainees, enemy combatants in places like Iraq, and we would search those fingerprints against relevant databases to see if we could track that person. Did we have a record of that individual? In other words, had this person been, for example, a detainee before, using a different name or operating an alias?

I think what the Electronic Frontier Foundation is concerned about would be a more ubiquitous use of biometric technologies just targeted in a dragnet fashion against citizens. The key comes down to how the government, how society, is going to permit these technologies to be used. And what type of safeguards are in place to ensure against abuse.

CHIDEYA: How concerned are you that private companies may sell technology either to the government or other private companies that just isn't ready for primetime? You know, for example, an American was identified as a suspect in the Madrid terrorist bombing based on a fingerprint. But then, officials recanted and said that he clearly couldn't have done it.

So how many people might get caught up in a legal action because the technology or the execution of the technology was flawed?

Mr. WOODWARD: Biometric technologies are not a silver bullet to save America from terrorist threats. I do believe the biometric technologies are a very useful tool. And I think the best example I could give you there would be that a fingerprint match identified the 20th hijacker.

The two planes that hit the Towers and the plane that hit the Pentagon each had five hijackers onboard. The plane that crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, only had four. So people wondered, that's 19 hijackers. Where was the missing 20th hijacker?

And according to the 9/11 Commission, the 20th hijacker that was identified by their work was Mohammed al-Kahtani. Kahtani was identified by fingerprint matching.

There are definitely mistakes made when you use biometric technologies. The important thing is to try to have rigorous and transparent processes in place so that we try to do the best job we can. But accept that it's not a perfect world and these kind of mistakes, unfortunately, will be made.

Now, I would say, with respect biometric testing, at least from what I know from having studied the FBI's use of fingerprinting, roughly you're looking at a system that does some 17 million searches per year and a fairly good record of accurate performance.

CHIDEYA: Well, John, there's a lot more to this and hopefully we can call on you in the future to talk about it. Thank you very much, John.

Mr. WOODWARD: Thank you very much for having me.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya speaking with John Woodward, Associate Director of the RAND Corporation's Intelligence Policy Center.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, National Guard troops called to the Crescent City to maintain order after violence erupts over the weekend. And music mogul Jay-Z boycotts the bubbly; why he has a beef with Cristal. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable.

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