No Silver Bullets Giving Up Privacy for Security Will Leave Us With Neither
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Tuesday, September 18, 2001
The terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center has led to feverish calls for increased government use of electronic-identification technologies that will further weaken privacy rights and undermine longstanding constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
Compounding the problem, the leading electronic-identification technologies being pushed, iris- and facial-recognition systems, can easily be thwarted and won’t offer any real protection from terrorism.
For example, the latest issue of Novell Inc.’s Overview of Biometrics notes the drastic effect lighting conditions (which can be manipulated with tiny diodes) can have on facial-recognition systems. Novell passes along the typical manufacturer’s optimistic claims of an approximately (and unacceptably high) 1 percent error rate for the systems. And that’s before hackers have had a real go at them. There’s no telling what the error rate will be when people learn more effective countermeasures.
Clearly, tougher security procedures are needed in the short run. What makes sense are practices similar to those so successfully employed by Israel’s El Al Airlines, which relies on passenger security interviews conducted by well-trained personnel, as well as armed air marshals and better cockpit and baggage security.
But those willing to trade our privacy rights to deploy potentially faulty biometric technologies are on the wrong track. Instead, extending the benefits of freedom to the breeding grounds of terrorism is the only path that leads out of the current madness. Doing so will not be easy, nor will it be quick. But there is no short-term push-button solution that will make us safe.
Iris- and facial-recognition systems are the two leading biometric, or body-measurement, technologies. Vendors of such devices — and some gullible law-enforcement agencies — often portray them as virtually foolproof. Their widespread adoption, however, could damage much more than just our civil liberties if it lulls America into a false sense of security that leaves us vulnerable to even more catastrophic attacks.
Sadly, technology offers us no silver bullets.
In a nutshell, the technical difficulty boils down to a principle often called GIGO (“garbage in, garbage out”). Terrorists can evade detection with relatively simple manipulations of biometric data inputs, such as those described above.
Both technologies rely on algorithms, sophisticated mathematical formulas that translate the topography of a face or an eyeball into a unique set of numbers that can be matched against each other.
These systems have their uses. They can be very effective in some cases — but only if users, such as people trying to access their bank accounts, want them to work. Biometric technologies do make masquerading as some other specific person quite difficult. But covering up one’s own true identity would be a piece of cake for the motivated terrorist.
Take, for example, the technology developed by Diebold Inc., the leading bank ATM maker, which provides iris-recognition systems to branches of Bank United in Texas. The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page for the company’s product freely acknowledges that customers should reenroll after certain laser-eye surgeries so as not to render the system ineffective.
Wearing mirrored sunglasses and undergoing inexpensive laser-eye surgeries are not the only techniques that can make fooling an electronic camera ridiculously easy. Along with lighting tricks, flesh-colored putty and sophisticated makeup can also alter certain facial contours.
What’s more, there is no accurate biometric reference data about the entire global population. Which means technologists can’t possibly verify who everyone really is, because they have no accurate data about who they are in the first place. In other words, GIGO.
Tempted by assurances that such measures will be effective, growing numbers of people seem ready to agree that additional personal-privacy rights must be sacrificed in the name of greater public security.
The most popular idea is to link biometric ID-recognition systems to a centralized database so that, in essence, your body becomes your national ID card. The database, which would surely grow over time, could contain everything from citizenship information to criminal histories to health and medical data. Scans could presumably be conducted everywhere security might be a concern, from airplanes to ball games to shopping malls.
Several companies, most notably Visionics Corp. of Jersey City, New Jersey, are vying to control this potentially lucrative new market.
Although it sounds futuristic, facial-recognition technology is already in surprisingly widespread use around the world, including at last year’s Super Bowl, where a controversy erupted after the public learned that cameras linked to sophisticated software had scanned the crowd in search of criminals.
I don’t have any problem with such practices. If a known rapist is out in public watching a ball game, it makes little difference to me whether he is recognized by a person or by a machine.
Where I think we should draw the line, however, is when the government is permitted to use technologies that invade privacy in ways that create real threats to basic civil liberties.
The widespread adoption of iris- and facial-recognition systems carries that potential.
A centralized government database that tracks individual movements, activities and associations may seem benign. But the data could easily be misused if and when it falls into the wrong hands.
It may sound far-fetched, but our government officials have an already notorious track record of harassing or targeting out-of-favor groups, whether it is the Japanese-American citizens who were unfairly incarcerated during World War II, the Vietnam War-era protesters who were audited by the Internal Revenue Service under President Nixon or the military-spending critics tracked by the federal government during President Reagan’s Cold War build-up. Permitting the government to create powerful centralized databases capable of tracking all our activities will invite even more egregious assaults on individual liberties.
Despite the fervor of recent days, we should remember that the founders of our country included protections against unreasonable search and seizure in our Constitution for some very good reasons. More specifically, they understood Lord Acton’s famous dictum that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
A policy that accepts systemic invasions of our privacy will only put America on the path to becoming less like the country we’ve known and more like the totalitarian adversaries who attacked us.
It’s tempting, particularly for the baby-boom generation, to believe that technology can solve these problems. But in the end, technology can do nothing to stop terrorists armed with the determination that brought down the World Trade Center’s twin towers.
Which brings us back to the only real solution, however difficult.
For several decades now, there has been an unholy alliance between the corporate right and the progressive left when it came to interfering in the affairs of other nations. In the Middle East, the corporatists want stable regimes from which to buy oil. The progressives, meanwhile, deplore any attempts to impose Western values on indigenous cultures.
So, in recent years, in the name of free trade and political correctness, we’ve tolerated unacceptable levels of barbarism in the Middle East, everything from female genital mutilation to public beheadings to widespread illiteracy to the persistence of polio in neglected populations long after the vaccine became available — and the denial of nearly every other basic human right. Slavery, even.
The corporatists surely must understand that the price of doing business with those stable but oppressive regimes is now higher than we can or should bear. And liberals must remember that, like the Taliban, Nazi Germany also had a culture, one whose destruction history does not lament.
It’s no coincidence that the recent organized terror attacks originated in fanaticism’s traditional hotspots, places that don’t have the pressure valves represented by free and vibrant democratic institutions. It’s in such hopeless environments, places such as the Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, that the insanity of the suicide bomber makes sense. These are places where individuals are schooled in hate and exposed in their formative years to few, if any, other options for venting their entirely understandable rage.
It’s as if we are learning, all over again, the self-evident truths that were enshrined in our Constitution and in our Bill of Rights. Put simply, the lesson is that modern civilization cannot safely coexist alongside states run by those who claim the divine right of kings, or who believe that some twisted version of an otherwise noble religion entitles them to govern as dictators, no matter how much oil or influence those nations may possess.
In the long run, the best weapons America can use to whittle down the appetite for Islamic fundamentalism and other extreme ideologies will be to find ways to make sure citizens in those nations get access to the tools of personal liberation denied them by their own despotic rulers. These include the basics, such as freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom of redress of grievances, as well as free elections. But it also includes other parts of life that we privileged Americans tend to take for granted, such as strong and unbiased public-education systems, robust public libraries, the dream-building power of cinema and the most effective weapon ever known to humankind: the well-stocked grocery store.
As was the case after World War II, these are the weapons that will most effectively undermine the narrow ideologies that now threaten our safety.
Making that happen will require patience, determination and the use of every effective means at our disposal. It’s a dangerous illusion to think that new applications of biometrics at airports and ball games will prove an effective substitute.
Over the long term, the only workable option we have is to come to the aid of those who would benefit from freedom in places where it does not now exist, rather than surrendering more of our rights here at home.
As recent events have demonstrated, we cannot move a moment too soon.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.