What future for biometrics? (And our DNA)?

The Personal Genome Project (PGP) raises some interesting issues that could impact our thinking around other identity issues – including the ongoing debate in the UK about identity cards, the role of biometrics and so on.

I’ve been wondering for some time how biometrics – which, like our DNA, are not exactly a secret (we leak them everywhere) – will be of value once they become so ubiquitous that everyone has access to them.

In a sense this is already happening. Anyone travelling to the USA under the US-Visit programme will be leaving several of their fingerprints on record. This tendency for our biometrics to be stored in multiple places under multiple jurisdictions will surely spread, with other countries – including those whose security and intentions are perhaps less transparent than others – gaining access to any biometrics they deem necessary from us when we visit them.

Likewise, I’d be surprised if banks and others don’t make advances into this area too. Some kind of biometric validation alongside Chip and PIN is surely only a question of time (once there are sufficient improvements in the false negatives/positives that currently make this too problematic to deploy on a large scale).

Now the PGP are taking the bold step of taking us to the logical conclusion of this – and openly publishing their genomes online (I should point out that is an entirely voluntary proposition). George M Church, one of the key movers behind PGP, writes in the January edition of Scientific American:

“Every newly recruited PGP volunteer will also be able to review the experiences of previous subjects before giving informed consent. The project’s open nature, including fully identifying subjects with their data, will be less risky both to the subjects and the project than the alternative of promising privacy and risking accidental release of information or access by hackers.”

This openness is designed to maximise the potential for discovery – and could offer a virtuous circle of pro-active medical interventions provided by third-party genomic software tools.

So what has this to do with identity, identity cards and biometric databases? Well, this model of openly publishing something we have generally assumed should be kept under close guard raises some interesting challenges to how we think about the value of the biometric systems currently being built and proposed around the world on the back of ICAO and other standards. It seems to me that as more and more people in more and more systems store copies of our biometrics, their value atrophies – probably on an exponential scale.

What value and risk assumptions will we be able to make when we know that anyone effectively has access to our biometrics in digital form – including so-called “rogue states”? It would make it impossible to verify identity using biometrics in anything other than an intensive face to face environment. Online authentication and any other form of automated model would become well nigh impossible since we would have to assume our raw biometrics could be acquired and replayed by anyone. In a world in which our biometrics are stored so universally, we will have to assume they are irredeemably compromised if this prevailing orthodoxy is maintained.

The PGP team point out some of the downsides of openly publishing your genomes to public scrutiny:

“Volunteers should be aware of the ways in which knowledge of their genome and phenotype might be used against them. For example, in principle, anyone with sufficient knowledge could take a volunteer’s genome and/or open medical records and use them to ….. make synthetic DNA corresponding to the volunteer and plant it at a crime scene.”

The same risk will be run with our biometrics when they are stored in a wide variety of computer databases around the world. The very programmes that aim to use them to improve identity checks could end up undermining and devaluing their worth entirely.

Am I missing something? I have very big concerns here if we devalue biometrics and even our DNA to such an extent. It is the same issue I have raised before about the risk to fingerprint evidence. If we undermine these invaluable tools, we could find ourselves in a far worse position than we are today in both criminal investigative work, the reliability of forensic evidence and the privacy and security of our societies. I find this a deeply worrying prospect with implications I can’t even begin to quantify. 

So: am I missing something?


This blog post originally appeared when I hosted NTOUK on SimpleBlog. It’s one of several I’m retrieving and posting here to bring together my posts in one place. The content, date and time shown for this post replicates the original. Many links are, inevitably, broken: where I can, I’ll substitute ones that work, particularly where the Internet Archive Wayback Machine has captured the content originally linked to.

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