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Low cost computers allow 1984 Big Brother in 2009

  Big brother in the Nashville schools - according to this article it sounds like since 2007 students, teachers, staff and volunteers have been required to have their photographs taken so the computers can sound an alarm when an unknown person enters the Nashville school system.

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Biometric technology opens new security frontiers

by Erin Kelly - Aug. 20, 2009 12:00 AM

Republic Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Iris scanners and facial-recognition cameras aren't just for spies anymore.

The futuristic technology once found mainly in James Bond movies and science-fiction novels is becoming increasingly pervasive throughout the nation, showing up everywhere from hospitals and high schools to docks and airports, including Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

And it could become the dominant way for Americans to identify themselves if Congress moves ahead with efforts to create a biometric employee-verification system to ensure that only U.S. citizens and legal immigrants get jobs. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who chairs the Senate's immigration subcommittee, has said that a verification system based on fingerprints, iris scans or some other form of biometrics must be part of any comprehensive immigration-reform bill.

The plan is controversial with civil libertarians, who say it poses a threat to Americans' privacy. But supporters say it is the only reliable, tamperproof way to stop the identity theft and fraud that plagues the current E-Verify system.

For such a proposal to work, Americans would need to provide their fingerprints or other biometric information to the government to help create a federal database that employers could use to identify would-be workers as legal U.S. residents.

It would be the most widespread use of biometrics in the nation, but it would not be the first.

Biometrics is the measurement of a person's unique physical characteristics, using digital fingerprints, handprints, iris scans or facial-recognition cameras.

"Biometrics have become fairly ubiquitous now," said James Ziglar, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and the recently retired president and chief executive of Cross Match Technologies, a Florida-based biometrics firm.

Travelers program

Just this month, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the expansion of a voluntary program for international travelers who are able to bypass long customs lines at the airport by scanning their fingerprints at special kiosks after pre-registering their information.

At Phoenix's Sky Harbor and other major airports, international travelers arriving with a non-U.S. passport or visa have their fingerprints scanned and a digital photograph taken by Customs and Border Protection officers as part of the US-VISIT traveler-verification program.

Those biometric identifiers are then compared with fingerprints and photographs taken when the traveler obtained the visa in his or her home country.

Officers are able to use that information to verify that the person entering the United States is the same person who received the visa.

That's important because visas are issued only after a person has been checked against a watch list of known criminals and suspected terrorists.

Airports aren't the only transportation centers bursting with biometrics. At the nation's seaports, more than 1 million longshoremen, truckers and other workers carry a special Transportation Worker Identification Credential card that contains an embedded microchip with their fingerprints.

"American ports from coast to coast are more secure today because of the significant progress this program has made," said Gale Rossides, acting administrator of the Transportation Security Administration.

In an attempt to comply with federal privacy laws, an increasing number of hospitals and medical centers are requiring doctors and nurses to scan their fingerprints before accessing patients' medical records.

Medical facilities also are using biometric scans to ensure that only authorized employees enter restricted areas and to match patients with their prescriptions to prevent people from receiving the wrong medication, Ziglar said.

Even some schools are exploring ways to use the technology.

The Nashville school system, beginning in late 2007, became the first in the nation to test facial-recognition cameras designed to spot intruders trying to enter school buildings.

"Students, teachers, staff and parent volunteers register and have their photograph taken," said Ziglar, whose former company sold Nashville the technology.

"If the camera sees a face it doesn't recognize, it sends an alarm to the security people."

Facial-recognition technology is accurate about 80 percent of the time while iris scans are nearly 100 percent reliable, Ziglar said. He said fingerprinting ranks between the two.

Fingerprints can sometimes change in appearance if people's hands are dirty or greasy or if they work at manual labor that wears away their prints.

Businesses or government agencies that require a high level of security often use a combination of biometrics, such as iris scans and fingerprinting, Ziglar said.

The cost of biometric technology has plummeted in recent years as its use and sophistication has grown, said Joseph Atick, a pioneer in the field of biometrics and executive vice president and chief strategic officer for L-1 Identity Solutions in Stamford, Conn.

Five years ago, it would have cost a bank or other company about $30,000 to buy equipment to scan a complete set of 10 fingerprints to check an employee's background.

Today, that same system would cost $6,000 or less, Atick said.

It's controversial

Not surprisingly, the use of biometric technology is controversial and is seen by critics as a threat to Americans' privacy and freedom.

"There is an enormous and ever-increasing amount of data being collected about Americans today," Christopher Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union told senators at a recent immigration hearing.

"Grocery stores, for example, use loyalty cards to keep detailed records of purchases, while Amazon keeps records of the books Americans read, airlines keep track of where they fly and so on," Calabrese said. "Once the government, landlords, employers or other powerful forces gain the ability to draw together all this information, privacy will really be destroyed."

But Atick sees the technology as a way to enhance, not destroy, democracy.

Biometrics has helped ensure the authenticity of elections in Africa and Latin America, he said.

It also has made it possible for retirees in Egypt to get their pension checks from ATMs rather than having to stand in long lines at government agencies, Atick said.

In Europe, biometric passports are eliminating long waits at border crossings.

"Five or 10 years ago, biometrics was all about law enforcement," Atick said. "Today, it's about making the lives of ordinary citizens better and more convenient. I think people will say, 'If this improves my life, I want it.' "

Republic reporter Jahna Berry contributed to this article. Reach the reporter at ekelly@gannett.com.

 

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