“Biometrics” refers to the use of technology that identifies individuals based on their physical characteristics or habits, such as fingerprints or keyboard typing.

The use of biometrics has received mixed reviews. Some claim that it increases security measures and contributes to protection of personal information. Others claim that biometric methods can be invasive, since they often utilize physical characteristics in order to obtain information.

What Purposes are Biometric Systems Being Used For?

Biometric identification systems are commonly used when granting or denying access to secured areas or information. Biometric technology is also commonly used for:
  • Immigration- confirming the identity and immigration status of a particular alien (the Secure Communities Program uses fingerprint technology to identify and deport certain classes of illegal aliens)
  • National security concerns- identifying potential terrorists
  • Various health service applications- for example, accessing records, maintaining medical files, storing pharmaceutical and medical histories, etc.

These are some common uses of biometrics, though the technology is being more widely used for more everyday purposes like commercial transactions (making purchases).

How Do Biometric Technologies Work?

Biometric systems utilize computer technology to scan for characteristics that are unique to every individual. These identifying characteristics can be divided into two groups: Physical Traits and Personal Habits.

Physical traits can include scans to determine: facial structure, fingerprints and eye structures, thermal emissions (heat signature), chemical compositions, and DNA signatures. A reading of Personal Habits can include analysis of: voice prints, keyboard stroke and typing habits, handwriting samples, and signatures.

The distinction between physical readings and habit readings is important, because the method employed can raise different legal issues. For example, many people would consider DNA samples or eye scans to be an invasion of privacy. In comparison, less people would probably feel that an analysis of handwriting is an invasion of privacy.

What Legal Issues are Related to the Use of Biometrics?

The biggest concern regarding the use of Biometrics is the issue of violation of privacy. People who are subjected to a biometrics scan or reading generally feel that such procedures are physically invasive, especially if they involve a reading of body parts.

Another concern is the issue of information security. Biometric readings are often stored in a database that can be accessed by the employer or government agency. Questions have been raised regarding the use of information obtained through biometric systems. Such information may include very private information such as medical histories and bank accounts.

If a legal issue has been raised regarding biometrics, it will usually be resolved using a traditional balancing test to determine privacy rights. A court will weigh the person’s expectation of privacy versus the public need to obtain such information. For example a court might analyze person’s handwriting for national security reasons. Since the public concern for national security is very great, a judge might conclude that it is necessary to review the handwriting in order to preserve national security.

Which Laws Govern the Use of Biometrics?

Since biometric technology is so new, there are very few laws that specifically address its use and application. There are many laws that govern confidential information, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). However, these are very general laws which deal with overall confidentiality in a given sector. As the use of biometrics increases, we should expect to see more specific laws.

What If I Am an Employer or Organization that Wishes to Install a Biometrics System?

Any company that is considering using biometrics should:
  • Clearly state the purpose of the biometrics system in policies or company handbooks; policies should provide avenues for concerned employees to voice their concerns or to file a complaint
  • Indicate whether the system is being used for identification or verification purposes
  • State whether the biometrics technology is required or option (“compulsory” vs. “voluntary”

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you feel that a biometrics test has violated your personal rights, you should speak to an immigration attorney immediately. They will be able to discuss the various options available to you under privacy laws, and whether an invasion of privacy has occurred. Also, if you wish to install biometrics systems at your business or workplace, you should speak with a lawyer to learn how to properly use the technology in a manner that conforms to the law.