SAN JOSE, Calif. — Long envisioned as an alternative to remembering scores of computer passwords or lugging around keys to cars, homes and businesses, technology that identifies people by their faces or other physical features finally is gaining traction, to the dismay of privacy advocates.
Some consumer gadgets already are outfitted with scanners to verify the user’s face or fingerprint, and many office buildings control access via retina and voice-recognition systems. But that could be just the beginning. Corporations, government agencies and university researchers are exploring ways to identify people through everything from the shape of their ears, veins and DNA to their gait, heartbeat and body odor.
“There are multiple benefits to society in using this form of identification,” said Anil Jain, a Michigan State University computer science and engineering professor, adding the technologies could prove “transformative.”
But skeptics call many of these “biometric” concepts infeasible. And while the idea is to bolster security, civil libertarians believe the technology could have grave privacy implications. They fear it could plunge us toward a future where we’ve forfeited the right to remain anonymous and our most personal information is bandied about in massive databases by retailers, police or others — often without our knowledge.
With face recognition, for example, “in 10 years the technology is going to be so good you can identify people in public places very easily,” said Joseph Atick, a face-recognition innovator and co-founder of the trade group International Biometrics & Identification Association. But misusing it could result in “a world that is worse than a big-brother state,” he warned, adding, “Society is just beginning to catch up to what the consequence of this is.”
Various biometric options already are being employed or investigated.
To minimize ticket fraud, visitors to Walt Disney World in Florida routinely have their fingertips measured, and San Ramon, Calif.-based 24 Hour Fitness confirms member identities with fingerprint scans. Hewlett-Packard offers a fingerprint sensor for accessing some personal computers. And in July, Apple bought AuthenTec, whose fingerprint sensors are used in phones and buildings.