Medical fears may hamper acceptance of biometrics

Biometric systems could face a backlash from users concerned that their eyes could be damaged by iris recognition systems, or that their health or emotional state could be detected

Companies and organisations that are keen to implement biometric systems may face opposition from some users who are afraid that they could be a health risk, an expert warned on Friday.

Speaking at the Biometrics 2003 conference in London on Friday, Marek Rejman-Greene -- senior consultant at BTexact's security technologies group -- identified these medical fears as one of 38 challenges that Europe's biometric industry must overcome over the next few years.

Rejman-Greene played a leading role in an EU-funded project called Biovision, which drew up a roadmap for the European biometric community to follow. This research included interviews with people who had taken part in biometric trials, some of whom were concerned about the medical implications of biometrics. In particular, there was concern that a person's eyes could be damaged by an iris scanner.

Although these health fears would appear to be unfounded based on current evidence, they could prove a significant handicap in the rollout of products that use techniques such as iris identification to authenticate users.

"Some of these beliefs are quite deeply held, and the industry needs to move people away from those beliefs," said Rejman-Greene.

Biometric identification is becoming an increasingly pressing issue, with US and EU politicians eager for biometric identification to be introduced into passports in an attempt to curb terrorist activity.

According to Rejman-Greene, while some triallists have been happy to accept the use of biometric identification, others have reservations about the technology. These concerns include the fear that medical conditions could be inferred through a biometric test -- something Rejman-Greene says could in fact happen.

"It is possible to recognise a person's emotional state through biometrics, in particular from their voice," Rejman-Greene explained, adding that some scientific literature suggests that it may be possible to detect whether someone is suffers from an illness in this way.

Some biometric triallists have been concerned that biometrics opens up the possibility of a person's "multiple identities" being matched together -- allowing one's work life to be linked to personal activities. Others worry that individual privacy will be eroded.

But many triallists have a more positive view of biometrics, Rejman-Greene said, and are attracted by the idea that systems based on biometric data will make it easier for them to enter a secure building or to access a PC without the need for a password.