Facing the facts about privacy

Aug. 9, 2001
Biometric technology is gaining popularity as an effective method of personal identification.

As mentioned in the preceding article, law-enforcement officials used biometric technology as a surveillance measure at the last Super Bowl. Video cameras captured people's images as they entered the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Facial-recognition software then compared the captured images against a database of images of known terrorists and suspected criminals. The American Civil Liberties Union disagreed with the surveillance method, calling it an invasion of privacy.

Reading about the controversy, as well as researching the article, got me thinking about the issue. The more I think about privacy, the more I wonder what's left of it. The concern over facial images being captured seems strange, since our faces are hardly private. Studies show that the average person is videotaped 30 times a day. Security cameras are everywhere — office buildings, grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, ATMs, and airports. And unlike the images captured at the Super Bowl, which were discarded after a few seconds if they didn't match an image in the database, security videotapes used at grocery stores and ATMs store images indefinitely.

If you think you enjoy anonymity, check out the Internet sometime. You might be surprised by how much you can find out about yourself. Anyone can get your phone number, address, and the names of your neighbors. If they have the right computer skills, people can find when and where you were born, if you vote, your social-security number, your personal finances, and who really knows what else.

I'm not saying that the government has a right to invade your personal life. I'm not saying I enjoy the fact my personal information is Internet-friendly. And I'm definitely not saying that we should just accept this. Privacy is one of our fundamental rights, and we should try to protect it as best we can. But I think biometric technology does just that. It improves personal privacy by eliminating smart cards and passwords someone can easily steal and helping police capture criminals who threaten our right to privacy, and in some cases, our right to life.

Yes, biometric technology has the potential to be abused, which is why it should be scrutinized and subject to some type of regulation. But I don't think its use at the Super Bowl was the first step toward a society where Big Brother tracks our every move. Personally, I think the government has more important concerns than following me from the grocery store to the airport. I'm also not worried about the government using the technology to indiscriminately store facial images on some mass government database. For the last few years, those of us with a driver's license have had our face digitally stored on a database. And I've yet to hear of any serious incident of the images being inappropriately used.

The more I learned about facial-recognition technology, the more I saw its advantages. I'd hate to see it dismissed out of public fear or see other biometric technologies tainted because of the brouhaha that erupted after the Super Bowl. Take a look around and you'll find that our privacy is infringed upon in numerous ways — some we don't even question because we've become so accustomed to them. Maybe it's time we faced the facts. The privacy we guard so valiantly has been under attack for awhile now, and if we want to save it, there are bigger battles to fight than this one.


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