The ethics of biometric data use in security

February 6, 2023  |  Devin Partida

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In a world where you can scan the veins in your hand to unlock a smartphone, how do you maintain control over personal data? Biometric authentication, the use of distinctive human features like iris patterns, fingerprints and even gait in lieu of a password, is gaining ground in the tech world.

Proponents tout its inherent, hard-to-replicate qualities as a security benefit, while detractors see the same features as an invasion of privacy. Both sides may be right.

The problems with biometrics

Unlike a password, you can’t forget your face at home. But also, unlike a password, you can’t reset your face — meaning you’re out of luck if someone steals a photo of it.

In 2016, a biometrics researcher helped investigators hack into a murder victim’s phone with only a photo of the man’s fingerprint. While security systems are getting more advanced all the time, current technology also allows cybercriminals to run wild with a single piece of biometric data, accessing everything from laptop logins to bank accounts.

By its very nature, biometric authentication requires third parties to store biometric data. What happens if the information is exposed?

In addition to potential hacking, breaching people’s personal data might reveal something they’d rather keep private. Vein patterns could reveal that a person has a vascular disorder, raising their insurance premiums. Fingerprints could expose a chromosomal disease.

True, people give this same information to their doctors, and a medical data breach could have the same repercussions. But handing off biometric data to a commercial company — which isn’t bound by HIPAA or sworn to do no harm — is a much grayer area.

Another issue that occasionally plagues biometric authentication is injuries and natural bodily changes. A single paper cut can derail a fingerprint scanner, and an aging eye throws iris scanners for a loop. People will have to update their photos every few years to remind the system what they look like.

Some facial recognition programs can even predict how long a person will live. Insurance companies have expressed interest in getting hold of this data, since the way a person ages says a lot about their health. If stolen biometric data fed into an algorithm predicts a person won’t make it past 50, will their employer pass them up for a promotion?

In the event of an accident, your family won’t easily be able to access your accounts if you use biometric authentication, since it’s not as simple as writing down a list of passwords. Maybe that’s a good thing — but maybe not.

Another ethical dilemma with biometric data use is identifying people without their consent. Most people are used to being on camera at the grocery store, but if that same camera snaps a photo without permission and stores it for later retrieval, they probably won’t be too happy.

Some people point out that you have no right to privacy in a public space, and that’s true — to an extent. But where do you draw the line between publicity and paparazzi? Is it OK to snap a stranger’s photo while you’re talking to them, or is that considered rude and intrusive?

The benefits of biometric data

Of course, no one would be handing off a photo of their face if the technology was good for nothing.

It’s quick, easy, and convenient to log into your phone by putting your thumb on the home button. Though it’s possible for a hacker to find a picture of your thumbprint, they’d also have to snag your phone along with it to log in, essentially having to bypass a two-factor authentication system. Who has time for that just to steal a reel of cat photos?

Hackers also can’t brute-force their way into guessing what your face looks like. Letter and number combinations are finite, but the subtle variations of the human body are limitless. Nobody can create a program to replicate your biometric data by chance. Consequently, biometric authentication is an extremely strong security measure.

Police can also use biometric analysis to get criminals off the streets. Unlike a human with questionable accuracy, a camera is a reliable witness. It’s not perfect, of course, but it’s much better than asking shaken crime victims for a description of who mugged them. Smart cameras equipped with facial recognition can prevent wrongful detainments and even acquit people who would otherwise languish in jail.

The flip side is that facial recognition does occasionally get it wrong — people have been arrested for crimes they didn’t commit thanks to camera footage of a lookalike. As camera technology improves, hopefully the incidence of people being wrongfully accused will lessen. But for the few outliers who still get misidentified, the consequences can be grave.

Facing the facts

Ultimately, people will have to decide for themselves if they’re comfortable using biometric technology. You probably won’t encounter any problems using biometric authentication to access your phone or laptop, and it can vastly improve your security. The bigger ethical debate is in how third parties can use publicly available data — whether legal or leaked — to further their own gains. In the meantime, just know that your face is probably already in a database, so keep an eye out for doppelgangers.

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