Biometrics – Where Technology And Storytelling Meet

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Matthew Maxwell, associate creative director at marketing firm SapientNitro, discusses the art of identity technology

My personal area of interest is applying science to topics traditionally addressed in the arts. The face, for example – everyone has one, but they’re all different. Every face tells a different story but they also have standard features that can be measured and compared and used to prove the identity of a single individual.

The topic of biometrics helps me with my identity crisis; not just: Who am I? How should I live? Why do I see the world the way I do? But also, can I prove I’m really me? And how do I stop somebody else pretending to be me and taking what’s mine?

The big issues

It seems I am not alone in wanting to think about these issues either. Delegates attending this year’s Biometrics Conference included representatives from interior ministries and police forces from Brazil to Qatar, Interpol, Big Brother Watch and most of the major global banks.

Despite the various sectors we all came from, the big question we were all there to debate is privacy vs. convenience.

invasion of privacyIf it’s privacy you value most, you can keep yourself to yourself and stay off the radar but it’s going to be tough doing even the simple things – like getting on a bus or going to the doctor. If it’s convenience, you may choose to abdicate control to someone else and remove all the friction.

Ultimately, it boils down to one word: Identity.

Identity really shouldn’t be a problem. Ultimately, only I can ever be me. Although my DNA is the sum of my parents’, the combination is unique. The vein patterns in my fingers, my iris colouration, my fingerprints and many other physical characteristics are mine and mine alone. But proving that I’m me every time I want to use the digital world is a pain. That’s why your bank doesn’t ask you to do it anymore – your contactless card does that for you. No PIN to remember, no passwords to forget.

There’s a reason that banks are so keen on this stuff. Even more than nation states, banks have historically been the go-to guys for verification of identity. Opening a bank account gives you access to the global financial system and banks guard that door jealously. But new players like Google, Facebook and PayPal are appearing. More doors are available, and quite what constitutes a key is struggling to keep up.

Defining what we mean by identity is a complicated task. And that definition, not surprisingly, depends on where you live. The idea of who I am, and whose business that is, is not universal.

For instance, if you live in a country with a threadbare civil service, registering births and deaths can be complicated. Which is great news for politicians with an appetite for longevity of power (we’re looking at you, Africa). Voting registers comprising lots of dead people and very few young hungry voters eager for change tend to be conservative. Without a verifiable ID you can’t vote, or go to school or receive healthcare. So the money that would cost is easier to divert towards building palaces or recruiting secret police. Human rights will be an uphill struggle. But a digital ID makes you a person, and a person can have rights. Non-persons don’t. Furthermore, in many of these cultures and especially outside urban areas, the idea of privacy is almost meaningless – everyone knows who, what and where you are. What is important is the group and the individual’s priority is to be recognised as part of that group and enjoy the fruits of the aggregated influence that delivers.

Twitter identity - Shutterstock: © Julien TromeurTo the British, ‘Identity’ is a fluid, slippery thing, or so it would seem. Almost uniquely in Europe, British citizens do not carry ID cards, and are under no legal requirement to produce any when challenged. There is a deeply ingrained instinct in the British character that identity is none of your damned business – it’s their personal, private, closely guarded property. The issue is not to prove it, but to use it to identify myself. That’s a subtle but significant distinction.

Obviously, the ability to distinguish one person from another is as old as the species. But it’s so innate, nobody, aside from the occasional more systematically minded portrait painter (Leonardo da Vinci) ever bothered to try and analyse what makes one face different from the rest. Then in 1888 the Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon invented the mug shot, creating a library of photos of individuals known to the Parisian police.

Since then, these two biometric markers have been the principle methods used to identify an individual. And now, every day, Apple and Samsung together release over half a million devices carrying fingerprint scanners. It’s not that we’re either too lazy or too stupid to remember 4 digits, it’s just too easy for anyone else to learn them. And as we focus more and more of our digital lives (which is more and more of our actual lives) through our phones, our vulnerability increases.

And so, as the science and the arts eye each other warily like two candidates for an arranged marriage, it becomes clear just how complex and all pervading this topic will become. And how the idea of the individual – what it is and what it means to be one, will be every bit as important as the technologies used to identify them and the channels built to connect them together. At SapientNitro we talk a lot about the point where technology and storytelling meet. This is it.

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