Mass surveillance through biometrics

Facial recognition and iris scan are widely accepted. A new ITA study in cooperation with the Austrian Chamber of Labour examines the advantages and disadvantages of biometrics. The authors urge policy makers to protect citizens against mass surveillance and data misuse.

Our face unlocks our mobile phone. But what happens when we are recorded and identified by cameras without knowing it? In the future, this could happen completely unnoticed and from a great distance - even the way we walk could be enough for identification.

"Before resorting to these technologies, policy-makers, companies and administrations should first ask themselves whether the processing of biometric data is necessary, meaningful and in proportion to the task at hand," emphasises Walter Peissl, Deputy Director of the Institute of Technology Assessment (ITA) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Together with Stefan Strauß and Felix Schaber, Peissl published the study "The Body as a Key? - Biometric methods for consumers".

The convenience factor

One of the characteristics of biometric data is its close connection to the person: once linked in the system, the data is inseparable from us", stresses Peissl. In the financial and banking sector, it is often used in banking apps and in online trading. Many consumers even find it "convenient" to use on their smartphones. "This convenience factor has critical implications – we are getting used to our body being a data source", “But if we don't know when we are being filmed and how the data is processed, we can't give our consent.

Protection through political responsibility  

The authors ask for political intervention and regulation such as higher data protection and security standards and clear limits of use: "The EU has already taken a historic step with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Now we need go further and ask: How can we implement a stronger right of consent for consumers, clarify legal grey areas such as facial recognition and the uncontrolled use of photos on the internet, or ensure that data is deleted after a certain time?", emphasises data protection expert Stefan Strauß.

The study analyses, among other things, technical basics or special areas of data protection law, presents different application contexts and discusses essential social effects.