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In Brussels' wake, biometric surveillance draws interest, concerns

The age of biometric surveillance is just beginning. Will it make us safer? Also in Searchlight: Intel mastermind remembered; DHS opens cyberthreats information sharing program.

A report from ABI Research predicts the global biometrics market will balloon to more than $30 billion by 2021, a 118% increase from 2015. One reason for the steep upward trend, according to the research firm, has to do with the integration of fingerprint scanners in more consumer electronics, particularly mobile devices.

Another reason? Surveillance.

"By 2021, we anticipate more than one in three surveillance cameras shipped [will] be IP-connected cameras," said Dimitrios Pavlakis, research analyst at ABI Research. "This will undoubtedly open up new pathways for facial biometrics and surveillance analytics."

Market growth in biometric surveillance will also no doubt be driven by current events. In the wake of this week's terrorist attacks in Brussels that left 31 dead and more than 270 injured, advanced biometric surveillance technologies, including iris identification, are drawing attention as governments and security professionals analyze the tragic event. Could biometrics technology help prevent the next Brussels?

The U.S. government, for one, is betting on biometrics. From the Department of Homeland Security's collaboration with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to input iris scans and 170 million immigrant fingerprints into a national database to the FBI's unveiling of a huge new Biometric Technology Center last summer, the U.S. has doubled down on biometrics technology. The DHS is also funding research into a "Tunnel of Truth," a long walkway flanked by several scanning devices and cameras that record passengers' facial expressions for signs of nervousness, erratic behavior or other traces that indicate they might be hiding something or lying about their identity.

Biometrics glossary

Airports, too, have already begun rolling out facial recognition scanners at security checks. On the local scale, the Los Angeles police department has invested millions of dollars to expand biometric identification capabilities for officers in the field.

Where's the database?

What do IT analysts make of the role of biometrics in anti-terrorism efforts? The security and privacy analysts I interviewed this week acknowledged the potential of these tools for surveillance, but some, like Heidi Shey, a senior data security analyst at Forrester Research, have reservations about the real-world logistics of biometric surveillance, in particular, the application of current facial recognition technology.

Biometrics technology is not a panacea for national security and anti-terrorism efforts.
Heidi Sheyanalyst, Forrester Research

"I am doubtful of the efficacy of mass surveillance through facial recognition biometrics," she wrote in an email. "There are issues like false positives that sweep innocent people into the net; to issues of simply not having a known face to try to match with (is there a terrorist Facebook somewhere?); to changes to the face (aging, facial hair, et cetera) that could possibly thwart recognition too. And this is already under the assumption that the image quality is good in an uncontrolled environment like a crowded stadium or a busy airport."

Avivah Litan, a Gartner analyst who specializes in big data analytics for cybersecurity, believes it would be much harder for terrorists to evade detection if there were "biometric footprints" left behind, but she doesn't think the technology -- or the database -- is there yet. Real-time facial recognition and voice, fingerprint and iris scanning amount to little if the data doesn't match to a suspect in a database, she cautioned.

Biometric surveillance and privacy

As biometric surveillance gains traction, another concern, of course, is privacy. This issue particularly worries Andras Cser, a security and risk analyst at Forrester, who questioned how law enforcement can capture terrorists' biometrics in the first place without playing Big Brother and risk violating citizens' privacy?

Shey agrees. "Biometrics technology is not a panacea for national security and anti-terrorism efforts," she said. "I'd be concerned with overreliance on this and other technologies at the expense of citizen privacy and focus on processes for coordination and cooperation between law enforcement agencies. Also, as with any technology, the technology itself is not inherently good or bad, it's how we use it -- or abuse it. There is plenty of room for abuse here."

She warns: "Even when we are at a point where technology advancements somehow address all of these concerns, we are still faced with decisions surrounding privacy, oversight, accountability, and acceptable risk. Are we solving for one challenge while creating other issues in the process?"

CIO news roundup for week of March 21

Here are some more tech headlines from the week:

  • Silicon Valley lost one of its founding fathers. Andrew Grove, former chief executive at Intel responsible for the production of chips and processors as well as much of the company's internal culture, died on Monday. Grove, who was 79, lived through the Nazi persecution in Hungary. He was employee No. 3 at Intel.
  • The FBI said this week that it doesn't need Apple anymore to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter. Instead, the FBI has reportedly turned to Cellebrite, an Israeli provider of mobile forensic software to unlock the device. Apple and the FBI were set to face off in court this week, but the judge agreed to postpone the hearing after the recent development. If Cellebrite succeeds, the legal battle over encryption would fizzle out -- for now.
  • It's a tough world out there for an A.I. bot. This week, Microsoft launched, and then temporarily silenced Tay, its new A.I. project on conversational understanding. It seems Tay is able to tell users jokes, comment on a picture you send and respond to tweets, learning from each interaction. It didn't take long for the Internet to make Tay start spewing racist and inflammatory tweets. Microsoft has since deleted the tweets in question and given Tay a timeout to "make adjustments."
  • Sharing is caring. That's the message from The Homeland Security Department, which officially began sharing details of new cyberthreats with private business and other government agencies this week in an effort to improve cybersecurity. "This is the 'if you see something, say something' of cybersecurity," said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, as reported by CBS News. The program is voluntary; how effective it will be remains to be seen.

Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on Congress' consideration of blockchain security and how to prepare for cyberattacks on the power grid.

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