Biometrics and Identification Essay

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The term biometrics is derived from two Greek words, bios, which means “life,” and metrikos, which means “measure.” Biometric technologies are used for identity verification, to determine the identity of a person, or to evaluate the intentions of a person through the use of physiological and/or behavioral measures. First-generation biometrics are used for identity verification and identification of unknown individuals, and second-generation biometrics are used for determining the intentions of a person. This essay focuses on the ethics of using first-generation biometric methods for identification of unknown individuals in criminal justice applications.

Many types of biometric data can be used for identification of unknown subjects. Physiological data from fingerprints, palm prints, knuckles, footprints, hand structure, lips, DNA, scars, tattoos, retinas, irises, facial features, ear shape, vein structure, odor, and dental configuration can be used to identify people with a high degree of accuracy. Biometric matching can also involve the analysis of behavioral markers such as signatures, handwriting, gestures, keystrokes, voices, heartbeats, and gait patterns.

Biometric identification technology is expanding because of advances in sensing technologies, increases in computer processing speed, improvements in biometric matching software, and increases in the capabilities of low-cost high-capacity data storage units. The expansion in biometric technology has been particularly rapid in the criminal justice field. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has implemented a Next Generation Identification (NGI) program to develop and implement biometric technology. The Integrated Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) provides fingerprint matching services. A scar and tattoo database and a facial recognition database are planned. The FBI also keeps a national repository of DNA data in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

According to Phillip Brey, the ethical issues related to biometrics fall into three general categories: error, function creep, and privacy.

Biometric Error

Biometric identification systems have varying levels of inaccuracy. However, it appears that human error is more often an issue that can lead to situations where the wrong person is accused of a crime. In 2004, Brandon Mayfield was misidentified as a terror suspect by the FBI because of an incorrect fingerprint match. This lead to a congressional study into issues with forensic identification. The Innocence Project documented 225 cases in which convictions were overturned because of new evidence, and found that forensic errors occurred during the trial in over 50 percent of the cases, including 5 cases where there was an error processing the original DNA evidence. Michael Bromwich analyzed the performance of the Houston crime lab and found that there were procedural errors in the processing of 32 percent of DNA tests. While this may not be typical of other crime labs, and not all errors may have led to misidentification of suspects, it appears that errors sometimes occur when using biometric technology.

Function Creep (Mission Creep)

Function creep, or “mission creep,” refers to the reuse of information collected for one purpose to achieve some other goal. Phillip Brey lists four types of function creep: database widening, purpose widening, user shifts, and domain shifts.

Database widening occurs when data from other databases are added to an existing database. Database widening would occur if the FBI decided to add photos and identification information from Facebook to the offender database. This is technically feasible but may be unethical.

Purpose widening occurs when existing data is used for purposes other than originally intended. For instance, video surveillance data collected for the identification of terrorists could be used to track the whereabouts of ordinary citizens. Another type of purpose widening occurs in DNA profiling. In a process called “familial searching,” forensic investigators try to find close relatives of the suspect in the DNA database in order to track down the suspect. It is not clear whether this is an ethical use of DNA data.

User shifts occur when data collected by one type of user starts being used by another type of user. For instance, pictures collected by state Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) offices must be digitized and provided to the FBI for identification purposes. In 2009, the FBI began using facial recognition software with a DMV photo database to locate criminals. The FBI plans to build a nationwide database of photos from the state DMVs and other sources to expand the ability to search for suspects in picture databases. It is not clear that people realize that their photos will be used in this way.

Domain shifts occur when biometric technology used in one area gets transferred to another area. For instance, video surveillance may become common in large cities and then migrate to small towns.


Anton Alterman lists three threats to privacy: (1) unwarranted identification and threats to the person, (2) undesired collection of personal data, and (3) unauthorized access to personal information.

Unwarranted identification occurs when law enforcement officials invade a person’s privacy without just cause. For instance, Anne Marie Rasmussen, a former policewoman and female body builder, had her DMV photo accessed over 400 times by 104 Minnesota police officers. She sued for invasion of privacy and eventually won over $1 million in damage settlements. It cannot be assumed that law enforcement personnel always have legitimate uses for biometric data.

Undesired collection of personal data is becoming a bigger concern. The issues vary by the type of biometric data that is collected. Collection of DNA biometrics causes concerns because of the level of information that can be gained about a person’s genetic makeup. Collection of facial recognition biometrics causes concerns because a person’s whereabouts can be tracked wherever they go with video surveillance, and the tracking software can track everyone that comes within camera range, not just legitimate targets.

Unauthorized access occurs if illegitimate users gain access to biometric data. This can occur through physical access to computers or through remote access by hackers. There are a number of ways to secure biometric data to keep it safe from unauthorized access, and failing to do so would seem to be unethical.

There are several ethical issues related to biometric identification in criminal justice settings. This field is changing rapidly and the courts have not ruled on the constitutionality of many of these issues. As the field evolves, legislation and court rulings should provide clarification of the proper uses of biometric technologies.


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  2. Baker, Mike. “FBI Uses Facial-Recognition Technology on DMV Photos.” USA Today. (October 13, 2010). (Accessed June 2013).
  3. Bromwich, Michael R. “Final Report of the Independent Investigator for the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory and PropertyRoom.” (2007). (Accessed June 2013).
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  7. Department of Homeland Security. REAL ID Act – Title II 1 H.R.1268 (2005). (Accessed June 2013).
  8. Donohue, Laura K. “Technological Leap, Statutory Gap, and Constitutional Abyss: Remote Biometric Identification Comes of Age.” Minnesota Law Review, v.97 (2012).
  9. Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on the CODIS Program and the National DNA Index System” (2013). (Accessed June 2013).
  10. Homeland Security Digital Library. “What Facial Recognition Technology Means for Privacy and Civil Liberties” (2012).
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  12. Horowitz, Seth. “Anne Marie Rasmusson, FormerCop Wins $1 Million for Misuse of Database.” City Pages (2012). anne-marie-rasmusson-former-cop-wins-1-million-for-misuse-of-database-1615440.html (Accessed June 2013).
  13. Innocence Project. “Wrongful Convictions Involving Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science That Were Later Overturned Through DNA Testing.” (2009). (Accessed June 2013).
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  15. Office of the Inspector General. “A Review of the FBI’s Progress in Responding to the Recommendations in the Office of the Inspector General Report on the Fingerprint Misidentification in the Brandon Mayfield Case.” U.S. Department of Justice. (2011). (Accessed June 2013).
  16. Pender, Jerome M. “Testimony: What Facial Recognition Technology Means for Privacy and Civil Liberties.” (2012). (Accessed June 2013).
  17. Prabhakar, Salil, Sharath Pankanti, and Anil K. Jain. “Biometric Recognition: Security and Privacy Concerns.” IEEE Security and Privacy, v.1/2 (2003).
  18. Suter, Sonia M. “All in the Family: Privacy and DNA Familial Searching.” Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, v.23/2 (2010).
  19. Sutrop, Margit and Katrin Laas-Mikko. “From Identity Verification to Behavior Prediction: Ethical Implications of Second Generation Biometrics.” Review of Policy Research, v.29/1 (2012).

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