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The Universal Biometric Identification Debate

If you look up the word biometric in the dictionary you probably will find a definition that will be completely different than what is discussed on this page.  For this discussion I use the definition supplied on the Biometric Consortium Web page: Biometrics are automated methods of recognizing a person based on a physiological or behavioral characteristic.  Among the features measured are; face, fingerprints, hand geometry, handwriting, iris, retinal, vein, and voice.  

On August 13th, 1999 I joined the Biometric Consortium's electronic discussion group with the sole purpose of monitoring the state of the art and devising means to defeat the technology should it become necessary to protect the lives of innocent people.  In a rather bizarre twist of fate it was my following of this technology that lead me to one of my current jobs -- devising a new biometric method.  One that incidentally cannot be used for a UBID.

I planned to merely lurk on the list and not join in the discussion.  At that time it was not in my "job description" to be involved in any way.  And the list had a very specific purpose that was not entirely compatible with my intentions.  The discussion group's membership and purpose is, in their own words:

... for federal, state and local government employees and others in industry and academia interested in biometrics. The Electronic Discussion Group is a free electronic mailing list for sharing discussions about all things biometric, ranging from research questions to meeting announcements.

As time went on I eventually could not help but comment.  On May 27th, 2001 I posted this message -- my first semi-public poke at a national ID card.  An excerpt from my posting:

practitioners of biometrics must address this concern in some way before this technology will get wide acceptance.

I have given this concern the name "The Jews in the Attic Problem."

I believed that bringing up the Jews in the attic problem would be the key to bringing down the idea of a national ID card.  I was wrong.  No one publicly disputed me, as near as I could tell I was ignored.  But it was obvious that the issue wasn't addressed.

On July 15th, 2001 I was compelled to post again.  This time on a reference to the carrying of firearms and frames of reference for making decisions.  Indirectly I was called a nut for my concerns that a biometric ID could be used as a tool for tyranny.

On July 17th, 2001 I again tried to explain.  We have lots of evidence that even the government we have here in the U.S. can be abusive and is not to be trusted even when there are regulations in place that are designed to prevent such abuse. I told them there were people with very strong feeling on the matter that would make implementation difficult and and very costly (in more ways than one).  I explained my concerns in detail and gave as an example of intensity of the opposition the statement of a good friend (I said he was just an acquaintance in the posting) who told me he would start mailing the thumbs of the legislators that voted for a thumbprint being required on a drivers license to the governor in his state -- and that I would be rooting for him.  I was prohibited from further posting on the list.  I was told it was because I had violated the rules of the list, which did not allow commercial messages.  I asked the moderator what in my message violated the rules and I was ignored.

I was not however prohibited from receiving the email from the list and I continued to follow the discussions.  After I went to work for Pacific Northwest National Labs in 2002 I joined the list with my work email address.  After a while I found occasion to make further postings.  I backed off on my vigorous and probably inflammatory rhetoric while still opposing the concept.  I did not appear to be making any progress.  My "Jews in the attic test" was dismissed or ignored.  Probably the most articulate of my "opponents", Henry Boitel on June 13th, 2003 dismissed my concerns with:

You distort the issue when you refer to it as the "Jews in the attic problem". In fact, you seem to be describing the "Nazis in the Government House problem".

He went on to say (along with some other dismissive stuff):

Energy expended on a paranoidal approach to biometrics would better be spent on crafting appropriate regulations with regard to the collection and use of personal information.

I didn't bother to respond.  Someone who believes "appropriate regulations" will protect us from the government needs a lot of education and I didn't have the time or energy to engage in the discussion then.  I had a test demo to give that day followed by the real demo for an out of town customer coming up a few days later and I couldn't risk that not turning out well.

As time would go on I would raise my concerns occasionally when the issue would surface, but to no avail.  I made other postings that tangentially were related to the problem such as explaining that voters sometimes insist politicians "do something".  I think this is the driving force behind the push for a UBID, people want the government to do something and this is something that conceivably be done.  It is almost irrelevant to people that a UBID creates problems worse than it hopes to and cannot fix.

On October 23, 2003 Steven Brill announced a new company (Verified Identity Card, Inc.) that would provide an ID card.  This appeared to upset some of the people pushing for a UBID.  I was baffled. Apparently they had distrust of private corporations similar to mine of governments.  And there were references to "haves" and "have-nots" that would result if you could afford to pay the $30 to $50 for the card and others couldn't afford it.  This debate was quite illuminating to me.  I engaged myself fully but allowed myself to get off track and probably cemented my reputation as a nut.

On January 7, 2004 Henry Boitel described in great detail how the UBID would work as he (and presumably others) envisioned it.  Had I gone searching for these details earlier I could have probably have found them, but here they were and I tore into them with a great deal of vigor.  I believe I finally have found the fatal flaws which will kill this idea and this online debate is my first presentation of them.  My Jews in the attic test was totally useless with this audience.  I have refined the ideas and presented them much more concisely for easier reading and understanding.

As I was refining the ideas in preparation for this web site I realize there was another way to accomplish the purported goals of the UBID without the fatal flaws.  I posted my idea to the list -- a rather dramatic and shocking development I thought.  I had been vehemently opposed to a national ID card and now I was proposing one.  I was rather shocked to discover Henry, the main proponent, interpreted this as all that had to be done was add "substantive controls and safeguards" into the access of the database and I wouldn't have a problem with the concept anymore.  Read the thread -- there are many things one could conclude about that Henry.  He could be delusional, have objectives not enumerated, he desires a system whose failure could bring the country to a halt, or he wants us to live in a police state.  These conclusions are probably wrong.  More likely is that he has such an emotional involvement in his existing view of a UBID that it is difficult or perhaps impossible for him to let go of his failed vision.

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Last update: January 28, 2004
Joe Huffman