From Breach to Business of Biometrics

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From Breach to Business of Biometrics

In summer 2015, a handful of people in Hong Kong rushing through the subway or waiting for the bus were faced with life-sized most-wanted portraits of their own faces. These people were not criminals or terrorists, fleeing from justice. So why were their faces plastered all over these billboards? Turns out the posters were not photographs but clothes likenesses of the individual face generated by a computer. How were they made? The creators of the posters had gone out and picked up DNA left behind on bits of litter around the city. Cigarette, chewing gum, chocolate wrappers and run it through special software.

The software used their DNA to recreate the faces of the litterers. The posters were then printed and distributed around the city to shame the litterers. Creepy as the sounds creepy has the sounds this was. Not a mass surveillance operation, it was just a gimmick thought up by Ad agency Ogilvy & Mather to bring attention to littering. But it also served as a vivid reminder to the public here’s a taste of what private companies can unexpectedly find out about you by casually swiping your biological data.

I began digging into what companies had found out about me by tracking my internet habits. I discovered that they had managed to dig up everything from my family circumstances to my weekend plans and my long-term ambitions. Today this might not come as a huge surprise to you. This is because the business of tracking us around the Internet has moved from the domain of obscure data brokers to that of the world’s most well-known and valuable companies. Companies like Facebook, Google, Flipkart and Amazon all trade in the currency of your data while providing you with convenience, connectivity and discounts. So, in return giving up your data seems like just a small sacrifice.

The economics of data-driven services is simple. Every time you interact with an app, each click is logged and converted into a behaviour together. These behaviours reveal unexpected things about you like, your tastes in books or music, your hobbies, your politics, the drugs you take, your beliefs. This is then packaged and sold to retailers, insurers banks and many others. You are the product going back to the ogre of the ad campaign.

Your DNA is one of the most unique forms of data that you still earn, it encodes your physical appearance your personality your biology combines this with other biological characteristics like your face, your voice and your fingerprint and together this big most personalized data set known as biometrics. It cannot be changed once shared it points exactly back to you. If lost, it allows for irrevocable abuse and just as we started giving away our behaviour or data for free a decade ago, we are starting to do the same with our biological data.

Your body is the new currency in the data market so why does any of this matter when our internet habits end up in the wrong hands. It can have an impact on unexpected events ranging from the price of health insurance to university admissions or who wins an election. Your biometric data identifies you for life, it can even extend to identifying your descendants. This is already happening every day like human guinea pigs we are giving away our data to companies.

Take Apples to face ID, which uses facial recognition to unlock your smartphone and several apps within it. Then there’s Facebook which uses facial recognition to spot photos in the background of images whether you’re a Facebook user or not. This is hardly a fail-safe method; U.S. scientists are able to reconstruct 3D images of a man’s face just from his Facebook photos and were able to fool four out of five facial Rickett recognition algorithms that they tested. Then there’s your voice how many of you own an ‘Amazon echo or Lexus speaker so you should all know that these speakers, as well as those made by Google, for instance, can recognize your individual voice.

Even startups like Safeway are using voice as a way to authenticate payments for their clients. Your voice can actually reveal some pretty unexpected details about you like your height, your weight, your personal demographic or your psychological state. It is already being used for criminal investigations. Samsung recently got into trouble when people found out that it had been secretly recording their voices via their smart TVs in their homes and sending these recordings over the internet. Leaving it open to interceptors and hackers. Even your DNA is not safe, Glaxo SmithKline is using the DNA of over five million people owned by a genetic database to develop new drugs. And US dating startup Sarah Moore claims that it can match-make the perfect couple using your DNA. To sign up you have to send in a cheek swab. Pretty unromantic.

There are hundreds of gadgets that can track our biometrics daily ranging, from your Apple watch or your Fitbit to the Strava app. And these collect realms of health data right down to a functioning ECG of your heart. And these gadgets aren’t just for adults they’re also available to track and quantify your child from the moment it is born. Biometric tracking onesies smart pacifiers and socks can all measure your child’s temperature, heart rate, feeding and sleep cycles.

Some apps actually claim that they can measure your baby’s heart rate even before it’s born. At the next general election, tens of millions of new voters will join the electorate here in India. We already know that tech-savvy youngsters in almost every country are being micro-targeted by political parties using their internet behaviours. And targeted messaging is delivered through social media applications like WhatsApp. Throw their biometric data into the mix and this can be misused to target these voters along the lines of race-ethnicity, caste gender or political affiliation.


As biometrics continues creeping up you have to ask yourself a question are you willing to make the same mistake twice? Our internet data is already in the hands of companies whose primary motive is profitability. How can we avoid this happening again? We can be cognizant of where the data is picked up, for instance, we could turn off facial recognition on Facebook or decline to use voice recognition with our banks. But this is not enough as citizens we need to stand up and demand the safeguarding of our own biological data. Not by national law, limited by borders but a global set of standards similar to the Declaration of Human Rights. If not for us then to protect future generations from our follies.

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