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Biometrics in the workplace

Biometric security systems can use an individual's retina, voice, DNA, or handprint for identification and access control.

In the decade since 9/11, fueled by the subsequent terrorist attacks in London and Madrid, high-security government facilities and private offices have increasingly relied on biometric data—voice recognition and fingerprinting—to profile the public. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world's largest professional association for the advancement of technology, recently reported on the rapid expansion of biometric data collection systems. The institute warns about the risks involved in storing this data, emphasizing the responsibility data collectors have to protect employees from identity theft. More contentiously, the institute challenges the government’s unregulated ability to tap into stored data and compare it to criminal databases. Understandably, encryption standards have become a matter of some debate within the industry.

Earlier this year, Think Progress, a popular blog published by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, raised a number of issues relating to increasing reliance on biometrics, especially as it pertains to ethical concerns about privacy and discrimination. In their view, law enforcement’s dependence on biometric data might aggravate harassment and racial profiling. Another issue, reported by the Economist, is that biometric screening works without a user’s volition. The article details an instance where a German man lost a finger when thieves wrested the ‘key’ of a biometrically secure luxury vehicle from him. In essence, biometric screening requires people to place great trust in a still-developing technology, which is far from infallible.

Meanwhile, detailed procedures have been implemented across the country to ensure that any personal information is collected properly and used appropriately. Purdue University, for example, regulates that biometric data may not be stored, must be encrypted, and can only be used for identification purposes, not authentication. Yet this does nothing to curtail what opponents see as biometric data’s most troubling feature, the tendency among businesses and government agencies to share biometric data without the expressed consent of the individual concerned.

Earlier this year, a private citizen filed suit against the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, claiming that Secure Communities, their fingerprint-sharing program started under Presided George W. Bush in 2008, erroneously identified him as an illegal immigrant and landed him in a maximum-security prison for two months. Until biometric data is collected with greater frequency, or the courts reach a decision about what can and can't be done with it (the current precedent is the Privacy Act of 1974), this will continue to be an area where employers will want to tread lightly.

Other challenges complicate the effective collection of biometrics. When the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) studied the use of biometrics by the Department of Defense, they found that "existing training does not instruct military leaders on (1) the effective use of biometrics, (2) selecting the appropriate personnel for biometrics collection training, and (3) tracking personnel who have been trained in biometrics collection to effectively staff biometrics operations." According to the report, the Department of Defense did not respond to the GAO's recommendations. This situation illustrates the improvements still needed before biometrics are fully effective in the workplace.