POST - Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Biometric Technologies

Published Friday, June 29, 2018

Biometric technologies identify individuals based on their distinguishing physical and behavioural attributes, such as fingerprints, face, and voice. Unlike passwords or traditional identity documents, biometric attributes are inherently linked to a person and cannot usually be lost or forgotten, potentially providing greater security and convenience. This briefing focuses on how these technologies work, their applications, and the policy challenges raised by their use.

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Biometrics Technologies

Key points:

  • Biometric attributes are generally universal and permanent. They can be measured and analysed to produce a digital signature that is sufficiently distinctive to an individual to enable their identification.
  • Biometric technologies can be used to check that someone is who they say they are (for example, checking that someone’s face matches the photo in their passport), or to identify an unknown person based on a previous obtained record (for example, comparing a fingerprint from a crime scene to a fingerprint database of previous offenders).
  • Use of biometric technologies is increasing, driven by: the perceived vulnerability and inconvenience of passwords and other conventional proofs of identity; increasing use of mobile devices with biometric capabilities; and the growing power of biometric systems, which have benefited from advances in computing technologies such as artificial intelligence.
  • There is currently debate over whether current regulation of biometrics is adequate, especially for police use of facial recognition technology, which has increased in recent years.
  • The use of biometric technologies raise various challenges, including concerns around privacy, public acceptance, and the potential for bias.
  • The Home Office has just published a delayed strategy for Biometrics.

 

Acknowledgements

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders, and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • Aaron Amankwaa, Northumbria University*
  • Big Brother Watch*
  • Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group*
  • Biometrics Commissioner*
  • Centre for Applied Science and Technology (now the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory)*
  • Dr. Carole McCartney, Northumbria University*
  • Dr. Gabrielle Samuel, King’s College London*
  • Dr. Matthias Wienroth, Newcastle University*
  • Dr. Richard Guest, University of Kent*
  • Forensic Science Regulator*
  • Government Office for Science*
  • Home Office*
  • IBM*
  • Information Commissioner’s Office
  • National Physical Laboratory*
  • NEC
  • National Police Chiefs' Council*
  • Privacy International*
  • Prof. Angela Sasse, University College London
  • Prof. Denise Syndercombe-Court, King’s College London*
  • Prof. Ivan Martinovic, University of Oxford*
  • Prof. Josef Kittler, Surrey University*
  • Prof. Mark Nixon, University of Southampton*
  • Prof. Sarah Stevenage, University of Southampton*
  • Surveillance Camera Commissioner*
  • TechUK*

*Denotes those who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.

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The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology produces independent, balanced and accessible briefings on public policy issues related to science and technology.