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Tactical Information Systems Blog

Identity & Technology

Big Brother Is Watching You

Big Brother, from 1984, written by George Orwell.

Big Brother, from 1984, written by George Orwell.

Invariably, whenever people talk about biometrics, the spectre of Big Brother is brought up.  1984, by George Orwell is one of my top five favorite books, so I am sensitive to this criticism.  I think the book is a wonderful cautionary tale, and I read it almost every year.  In fact, I recently had this exchange at a pet store:

Clerk:  Can I get your phone number?
Me:  Sure, it is 555-1212
Clerk:  Is your name George Orwell?
Me:  Yes.  Yes it is.

Bless you anonymous person who registered George Orwell under this phone number.

I am very sensitive to privacy issues and I don’t like to have my personal information recorded, tracked, tied to purchases, etc. etc.

So why work in biometrics? Simple, biometrics are a tool for establishing and identifying an identity claim. For some things, that is very important. Could it be used for an Orwellian police-state? Absolutely. In fact, it would be one of the key tools. It isn’t mentioned in 1984 because the book was written in 1948, before biometrics were widespread.  However, the most important tool of a police state would be computers and databases.  Should we rally against those too?

The protection against a police state (or a police corporation) is not in eliminating a particular technology, it is in open and transparent government, or corporate policy. You need to have control over your personal data. Governments should have to disclose what they are doing with your data and who they are sharing it with. The same goes for corporations. And if they violate that trust, they should be slammed.

You are not going to be able to hoard your personal data and never share it unless you want to live in a Unabomber shack. Giving out data is just part of modern society, and we can all learn to live with that.  However, the elimination of biometric technology is not going to change anything, even assuming you could put that genie back in the bottle. Abuses of information will happen with both biometric and non-biometric data, and those can be dealt with.

The controlled sharing of non-biometric data has brought a lot of benefits to society, as well as a few problems. The use of biometrics can provide even greater benefits, with fewer problems.  In many applications, secure identity is frightfully important, and biometrics is the only way to secure identity.

Like any potentially dangerous technology, we have to be careful about controlling it. Hoping it will go away is not the answer, because useful technologies will never go away. We are better served by focusing our efforts on controlling it.