New Measures Raise Privacy Concerns
By Jennifer Grogan
When high-profile entertainers, business executives and politicians exercise, they want the latest equipment and the best trainers. Most of all, they want an escape from the masses. For a mere $23,500 a year, they can go to the VIP section of the Equinox Fitness Club in Manhattan, which uses the latest technology to ensure their privacy.
“We can’t have people just pushing on the door to see the celebrities,” said Suzanne Meth, client services manager, as she explained why the club uses a device that unlocks the door only to members whose irises are recognized.
Once found only in science-fiction movies like “Minority Report,” “GoldenEye” and “Total Recall,” biometric technologies are becoming a part of everyday life as an innovative way to control access to buildings and information. Researchers are developing devices that will recognize a person’s smell, walk and even DNA.
Iris-recognition technology is one of the more popular options because of its accuracy and convenience. Other biometrics include fingerprint, hand and signature readers, face-recognition systems and voice analyzers. While some warn that these devices will erode people’s privacy, others praise their ability to enhance security.
“The iris has more regularly measurable unique characteristics than even a fingerprint, and from those characteristics a code that’s unique for everyone in the world can be created,” said Tom DeWinter, manager of business development for LG Iris Technology, a division of LG Electronics USA. “Even identical twins have different irises.”
The process, which takes about two seconds, involves taking a digital picture of the iris from 10 to 12 inches away, converting the image to a code and comparing it to a previously stored encrypted code. DeWinter said the photograph is deleted while the code is kept by the company that bought the system.
Iris identification is sometimes confused with retinal identification, which involves scanning the back of the eye. It is no longer widely used because a person has to stand close to the reader and the retina can change with age and with some medical conditions. The iris is the colored part of the eye that regulates the amount of light that enters.
LG Electronics has installed the iris devices in banks, airports and other high-security areas. Last summer, the Nine Zero hotel in Boston became the first hotel to use it.
A guest in the $3,200-a-night Cloud Nine penthouse suite has the option of using the LG IrisAccess 3000 instead of the average room key. The concierge uses a camera to take a picture of the person’s iris and then the camera on the wall beside the suite’s door takes another picture and matches it. Some guests opt to keep their information stored in order to bypass check-in on their next trip.
“Once they’ve used it, they’re hooked,” said Jim Horsman, the hotel’s general manager. “It’s easier than a key because it can’t be lost, it can’t be stolen and you don’t have to worry about finding it in your purse or pants’ pocket.”
The hotel also installed the device at the employee entrance and loading dock to restrict access to the staff. Horsman said his employees have readily accepted the technology. “In a post-9/11 world, they’re concerned and they want to know that they’re working in a safe environment,” he said.
Other companies scan employees’ fingerprints or hands instead. Citibank uses the fingerprint technology on its computers, while the William Beaumont Hospital, in Troy, Mich., uses hand recognition devices to control the doors to its pharmacy and to some of the emergency rooms and nursing areas. Within the pharmacy, there is a second device on the narcotics cabinet.
“It keeps a digital record so if something was missing, we could narrow it down to who was in the cabinet at that time,” said Craig Cooper, the hospital’s pharmacy director.
Even people who don’t work at a large company or exercise at a pricey gym or stay at a luxury hotel are beginning to encounter biometrics more frequently. Visitors to the Statue of Liberty scan their fingerprints to open the lockers; cell-phone and computer owners may now purchase models that check their prints to prevent others from using the devices; and passports are being made with a magnetic strip that stores fingerprint data.
“By using biometric identifiers in visa documents and passports, we are making it hard for people with bad intentions to come into our country using false documents,” said Suzanne Luber, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The government has turned away more than 700 people at airports and seaports using the technology so far, she said.
By 2008, sales of biometric technologies are expected to reach $4.6 billion, up from $1 billion in 2004. “Without a doubt, they will become a part of everyday life in the near future,” said David Fisch, a consultant at International Biometric Group, an independent organization that studies the industry.
But, not everyone is pleased with these developments.
Questions remain about how the data is stored and whether it is vulnerable to theft or abuse, said Beth Haroules, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s bad enough now if someone gets your Social Security number,” she said. “What could happen if they are able to hack into you and create a template to match your eye?”
Robert O’Harrow Jr., author of “No Place to Hide,” a book that describes how public and private institutions are gathering information on citizens, cautions that biometrics increase the likelihood of tracking. “This could turn into a surveillance society, where people are recording and watching everything we do,” he said.
DeWinter disagrees. Biometrics actually increase peoples’ privacy and security, he said. “People can reproduce a paper ID a lot easier than a biometric,” he said. “With all the identify theft going on in the world today, being able to authenticate people by who they really are and not just by what documents they might present is more important.”