Biometrics: Unlocking government services

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Biometrics: Our best bet for unlocking government services

In the last decade, the private sector has seen significant uptake of biometrics, with companies scrambling for ways to enhance user experience and security in smartphones, ATMs and mobile wallets. Despite the current focus on data protection, the potential applications of this technology are far-reaching. Biometrics are poised to play a major role in helping governments, companies and citizens solve some of society’s most pressing problems.

While historically slow to digitize, governments have long recognized the potential of biometrics to radically change and improve the way they serve citizens. The U.S. government began using biometrics for Trusted Traveler programs in the mid-1990s, and today the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology Program (US-VISIT), which has a registry of over 170 million unique identities, uses biometric technology to enable domestic and international stakeholder organizations to verify the identity and status of travelers. Automated e-Passport gates -- self-service kiosks that verify a traveler’s identity with biometric recognition software – are also becoming more commonplace at airports in the United States and overseas. These gates enjoy high levels of user satisfaction, increase passenger capacity at border crossing points and enhance security.

Of course, public-sector interest in biometrics is not limited to the United States. The Netherlands have relied on biometrics-enabled passports for citizens since the mid-2000s, while Ireland has been using biometrics to reduce identity theft and resulting welfare fraud.  In India, the government-led national identity program Aadhaar aims to establish a biometrics-based registry for all 1.2 billion of its residents. After having their identity verified, registrants receive a unique 12-digit ID number that allows them to access a range of government and private sector services. Aadhaar is the most ambitious government-led biometrics program in the world, with over 900 million Indian residents already enrolled.

The education sector is also taking notice of biometrics. Only a few weeks ago, Virginia Commonwealth University announced that it would be using biometrics to identify diners at its campus cafeteria. While this initiative is aimed at thwarting freeloaders, biometrics could help keep unauthorized persons from accessing student records, financial data and other sensitive information. The technology may also provide some relief to school administrators and parents plagued by the threat of violence, reduce the risk of unauthorized persons on campus and, in the case of nursery and K-12 schools, ensure that children are released into the custody of approved caretakers.

Similarly, hospitals around the country are also investing in biometrics to protect patient and provider information. In addition to patient identification databases, which often use vascular scanners to verify registrants, biometrics could be used to ensure that patients receive the correct medications, and to manage patient and visitor traffic in hospitals wards and operating theatres.

Perhaps the most important application of biometrics technology is in the creation of national identity management programs. A new report from the World Bank and Accenture, titled Identification for Development (ID4D) Integration Approach, provides a comprehensive strategy and implementation roadmap for developing nations seeking to launch or expand resident ID programs, regardless of a country’s level of technology infrastructure. While the benefits of identity management programs transcend class, ID4D could have an enormous impact on poor or marginalized populations by opening pathways to government services.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is also working to register and verify the identities of displaced persons. The Biometric Identity Management System captures and stores fingerprints, iris data and facial images of individuals, providing them with what is often their only personal identity record. Already, the agency has helped identify more than 100,000 refugees in Chad, with similar success in Malawi and Thailand. 

One of the major concerns aired by opponents of biometrics technologies is that they pose a threat to individual privacy. But advocates argue the opposite, that biometrics can be used to safeguard citizens against data breaches, identity theft, fraud and other violations of personal rights. And while international travelers may find it mandatory, citizens can still access most government programs and services without providing their biometric data.

Opponents of biometrics also cite the risk involved in creating a database of iris, fingerprint or other physical identifiers that, in the event of duplication or theft, cannot easily be altered or replaced.  But unlike a password or PIN, the physical markers used in biometrics technology are difficult to replicate. One potential solution is to develop multi-modal systems, which rely on multiple forms of biometric data for verification. Both Aadhaar and UNHCR’s Biometrics Identity Management System aggregate iris, facial and fingerprint data for each person. Of course, those who are unable to provide multiple forms of ID -- for health, religious or other reasons -- may still participate.

Those challenges are not inconsequential, but interest and investment in biometrics are unlikely to fade. In fact, some analysts are predicting that the industry, which reported a global market value of more than $6 billion in 2015, will undergo double-digit growth by 2019. And opposition may dwindle as citizens begin to feel the benefits of biometrics in their everyday lives -- unlocking smartphones with their fingerprints or zipping through airport security with a biometrics-enabled passport.  And these applications just skim the surface of what’s possible. By improving security and convenience across a range of industries, biometrics have the potential to transform our lives. 

About the Authors

Dan Bachenheimer is senior manager, Accenture Identity Services.

Cyrille Bataller is managing director, Accenture Cognitive Computing.

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