GUY RAZ, host:
One of the more surprising revelations from those WikiLeaks cables was a memo that sounded like something out of the film "Minority Report," where retinas are scanned to identify criminals.
(Soundbite of film, "Minority Report")
(Soundbite of scanning)
Unidentified Woman: We got an ID.
RAZ: It turns out that in directives signed by both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, American diplomats around the world and at the United Nations were asked to gather a whole range of information about the key officials they met, including biometric data - data on officials from Africa, China, India and many other nations - and also, top U.N. leaders, including the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.
He released a statement warning against quote, the mixing of diplomatic tasks with downright espionage. It's unclear whether that data was ever gathered on anyone. For more on biometrics, we spoke with Stephanie Schuckers. She's an expert on the topic at Clarkson University.
Professor STEPHANIE SCHUCKERS (Clarkson University): So biometrics are measured physiologic or behavioral characteristics that are measured from an individual in order to recognize them - so differentiating pieces of information.
RAZ: So for example, fingerprints?
Prof. SCHUCKERS: Right. Exactly. So the most commonly known is a fingerprint.
RAZ: But it could also include retina scans and facial scans, and other things like that?
Prof. SCHUCKERS: The main areas of biometrics are fingerprint, face recognition, voice recognition, iris scans, DNA.
RAZ: How would somebody go about gathering biometric data on somebody without their knowledge?
Prof. SCHUCKERS: I think it's commonly known that a lot of these features, like your face, are available by just simply taking a picture.
RAZ: Just snapshots.
Prof. SCHUCKERS: Exactly. Iris - that's the colored part of your eyes - in that same way, a snapshot could also work, though most iris-recognition systems work in the near infrared range, which means you need a special camera. But there is information in the typical camera for the iris.
RAZ: So you could, for example, take a photograph of Ban Ki-moon or some high-ranking official in Nigeria, and you wouldn't need to scan their retina to get biometric data?
Prof. SCHUCKERS: That's right. The face contains identifying information, as we all know. We can easily recognize famous individuals as well as our neighbors or even people that, you know, we knew in college or in high school.
RAZ: Why would anyone - in this case, the U.S. government - want biometric data on foreign officials if you could easily identify them anyway, simply by looking at them? I mean, what advantage would it give to someone?
Prof. SCHUCKERS: Well, as we said, biometrics is not secret - just like your name's not secret; your address is not secret - but it is identifying information. What biometrics enables is to further identify additional pieces of information, to allow you to distinguish between individuals.
RAZ: Can you give us an example of a biometric database that you know of, that is out there - maybe a government database, or something like that?
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The correct acronym for the FBI's system is IAFIS, which stands for integrated automated fingerprint identification system.]
Prof. SCHUCKERS: Well, of course, the oldest and most famous is the FBI AIFIS system - A-I-F-I-S, automated fingerprint information system -which holds fingerprints from criminals in the U.S. There's a system in place for the Department of Homeland Security for those individuals wanting to enter the United States. And the purpose is to verify the identity of the people entering the country in a mutual agreement. So they apply to the State Department to receive a visa, and then we verify their identity when they cross the border.
RAZ: That's Stephanie Schuckers. She's an expert on biometrics at Clarkson University. Stephanie Schuckers, thank you so much.
Prof. SCHUCKERS: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.