Biometric Scanning Rises Despite Privacy Fears


​Governments that are looking to protect health benefit records and safeguard citizens from identity thieves might want to check out their favorite spy movies for a clue about what help is coming.

Technology is on the rise that scans palm prints, eyes and voices to allow access into rooms or data and to verify identities. Based on biometrics, these systems recognize individuals by analyzing unique characteristics of a person's body or behavior.

But with recent advances in the technology, new biometrics systems are coming onto the scene, such as the full-body scanners that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced will be landing at 11 U.S. airports by summer 2010. And as more scanning systems roll out, and through which citizens are linked to databases, privacy advocates stress the risks of having personal information in the open.

"We don't want to the see the same problems we've seen with other identification systems," said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group in Washington, D.C. "Before people jump in the deep end of the pool, they need to really consider the short-term and long-term consequences. Any information that's collected has got to be protected."

But that's not stopping Evan Smith, CEO for Eye Controls, an iris recognition biometrics company based in Virginia. Since launching in 2007, he said, his company has implemented its SafeMatch system at six health clinics and a construction site, and has been in talks with various government agencies.

"A lot of times, people are concerned with biometrics being an invasion of their privacy, but this system protects privacy," he said. "In a world where when you go to a hospital and have to look into a camera and your physical features match, somebody can't come in and pretend to be you."

Eyes On the Patient

As concerns about medical identity theft and insurance fraud continue to grow, more hospitals are looking for better identification tools. With biometrics, specifically iris scans, medical personnel can identify patients and retrieve accurate health records in the blink of an eye.

That's why in 2009, Urban Health Plan, a clinic in the South Bronx, integrated eye scan technology to match patients to their medical records. Urban Health Plan has 84 Eye Controls cameras throughout the clinic, from the front desks to the financial checkout to the exam rooms, Smith said. The clinic just ordered 50 more. The cameras cost $149 each, he said, and the price for the software varies depending on the facility's size.

Such technology, he added, would be invaluable in disaster situations, when injured people get transported from an on-site triage to a facility for treatment.

"How do you start a medical record for that person and have it transported with them amid the chaos?" Smith asked, adding that the handheld iris camera and software could be used to reduce identification errors.

The goal of the federal government is for most Americans to have electronic health records by 2014. Hospitals are in the process of creating a nationwide network of private, secure and interoperable electronic health records. With its simple interface, Smith said, the iris cameras can be plugged into any electronic medical record system.

And when it comes to privacy, all iris pattern data is stored in a secure server, he added, and is useless outside of the system.

"It's just ones and zeroes," he said. "It doesn't mean anything. If anybody wants my iris pattern data, I'll send it to you. If you can figure out how to hurt me with it, let me know."

Making Corrections

At the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, a Baltimore inmate recently conned his way out of prison by pretending to be someone else. The inmate was released by mistake, but was recaptured less than 24 hours later by a law enforcement task force in Martinsburg, W.Va., officials said.

To prevent future mishaps, the Maryland Division of Correction (DOC) -- which oversees the facility -- implemented electronic fingerprint scanning as part of its inmate release policy and procedures in the Baltimore region.

The DOC had already invested in tools such as BOSS (body orifice scanner) chairs, which detect contraband made of metal that's hidden on the body, but has not yet looked into iris scanners, according to Mark Vernarelli, a DOC spokesman.

"We are certainly interested in any technology that might help," he said. "We do employ FastID fingerprint scanners now to reduce the likelihood of mistaken releases."

In the near future, law enforcement will continue to enhance biometrics to combat crime and terrorism. The U.S. Justice Department awarded a $500,000 grant to the National Sheriffs' Association, which will fund a national database that better identifies, registers and tracks inmates.

In fact, the biometrics field has been expanding so much that, in 2007, the FBI launched the Biometric Center of Excellence to manage current government systems and explore new potential technologies that identify people by their footprints, hand geometry and the way they walk.


Russel Nichols