Original Version of 5 April 2008 – Amended 15 October 2011


Technology providers are trying to sell biometrics schemes, and some organisations are buying them, without regard for the security and privacy of the people the schemes are being imposed upon. Now even school-children are being trained to submit to biometric measurement, and to accept physical intrusions and continual techno-surveillance as part of their lives.

This document expresses the APF’s policy in relation to biometrics.

The APF’s policy is that all biometric schemes must be the subject of a moratorium.

No new biometric schemes should be implemented until and unless comprehensive laws have been brought into effect to regulate them.

Each proposal must be demonstrated to be justified, must be subject to a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA), including consultation with the affected people and their representatives and advocates, and must include appropriate safeguards. It will then be essential to review existing applications of biometrics, to ensure that they also measure up against the standards.


A biometric is a measure of some physical or behavioural attribute of a person, which is intended to be unique, or at least sufficiently distinctive to assist in recognising who the person is.

Few if any biometrics are actually unique; but technology providers promote the myth that they are, and user organisations happily believe it. A great many biometric schemes have been invented, and many have failed and disappeared. Those currently in the market include fingerprints and iris scans (which under ideal conditions can produce some degree of reliability), hand geometry and voice scans (which under ideal conditions can be of some use in authenticating whether the person is who they purport to be), and so-called ‘face recognition’ technologies (which not only do not ‘recognise faces’, but are not even based on any attribute that could give rise to reliable distinctions between different people).

The most common form of biometric scheme involves a ‘reference measure’ being acquired for each person, together with an identifier such as their name, and stored somewhere. Subsequently, ‘test-measures’ can be compared against one particular reference measure, or against multiple reference measures.

For a great many reasons, the measurements are always inaccurate, and the matching is always ‘fuzzy’; so results ought to be expressed as probabilities. But that is administratively inconvenient, so most biometric systems just determine a Yes/No result, based on some arbitrary threshold. The thresholds are set and adjusted pragmatically, in order to achieve a compromise between generating large numbers of ‘false positives’ (unjustified suspicions), on the one hand, and large numbers of ‘false negatives’ (failures to find what should have been matches), on the other.

Biometrics can be used for authentication. In this case, a test-measure is compared against a reference-measure for a particular person, and the decision is either that the person is accepted as being the right one, or rejected. Alternatively, biometrics can be used for identification, in which case the test-measure is compared against the reference-measures of large numbers of people. Authentication uses are error-prone, and in some cases such as ‘face recognition’, highly error-prone. Identification uses are highly error-prone, in some cases such as ‘face recognition’, hugely error-prone.

Biometrics have been implemented or proposed as a basis for forensic evidence in law enforcement and some civil cases, for identifying people at border-crossings, for controlling access to secure areas, for checking that a token (such as a passport or credit-card) is being presented by the person it was issued to, and for recording attendance (e.g. by people on parole, or on remand, but also for employees and even school-students).


1. Biometrics are Extraordinarily Privacy-Invasive

Biometrics invade the privacy of the physical person, because they require people to submit to measurement of some part of themselves. In many circumstances, people are required to degrade themselves, and submit to an act of power by a government agency or corporation, e.g. by presenting their face, eye, thumb, fingers or hand, or having body tissue or fluids extracted, in whatever manner the agency or corporation demands. This may conflict with personal beliefs and customs.

Biometrics invade the privacy of personal behaviour, because they are a key part of schemes that provide government agencies and corporations with power over the individual. That not only acts as a deterrent against specific undesirable behaviours, but also chills people’s behaviour generally.

Biometrics invade the privacy of personal data, because biometric measurements produce highly sensitive personal data, and that data is then used, and in many cases stored and re-used, and is available for disclosure, e.g. by the Australian government to other governments, including U.S. immigration and national security agencies.

2. Biometrics are Highly Error-Prone and Unreliable

Biometric schemes try to impose rigid technology on soft human biology, and in enormously varying contexts. Among many other challenges, the nominally unique features are mostly three-dimensional, and vary over time, and hence it is simply not feasible to ‘capture’ a representation of the features into digital form in a consistent manner. The equipment has to cope with many different environmental conditions (such as the strength and angle of light, the humidity, the temperature, and the dust-content in the air). In addition, it is impossible to ensure that manual procedures are performed in standard, invariant ways by lowly-paid security staff.

The comparisons performed between measures ignore all of the subtleties and reach a decision that is more or less arbitrary. A proportion of people (somewhere between 2% and 5%, or between 400,000 and 1 million Australians) are ‘outliers’ whose measures will always be highly problematical (e.g. because their fingerprints are faint, or worn down). A further serious problem is that many people accept the imposition nervously, sullenly or uncooperatively, and some actively resist it and seek to subvert it – some of them with serious criminal intent, but others without it.

As a consequence of these problems, there are a great many sources of error. That in turn means that tolerance-ranges have to be set quite high. Errors that are ‘false-negatives’ mean that the system doesn’t achieve its primary objective. False-positives, on the other hand, give rise to wrongful suspicions, create considerable anxiety for the people concerned, and deflect organisational focus and resources away from more effective security measures.

3. Biometrics are Highly Insecure

An individual or organisation that acquires a person’s biometric can use it to commit identity fraud or outright identity theft, and to ‘plant ‘ false evidence.

Biometric technologies are commonly able to be subverted in order to produce an ‘artefact’. That enables a person to masquerade as someone else.

If a person’s biometrics are compromised by someone else, they cannot be revoked. So the risk of ‘biometric theft’, which exists for everyone, lasts their whole life long. Hence, even if it makes sense to use biometrics for a very small number of really important purposes, it doesn’t make sense to undermine such reliability as it has by using it for trivial applications.

4. Biometrics assist Identity Fraudsters and Thieves

Far from solving masquerade and identity theft, biometrics are actually part of the problem.

Biometrics technologies are opaque. Organisations don’t understand them, but instead just assume that they work, without conducting continual tests to ensure that they are still functioning as they were intended to, and haven’t been neutralised. So masquerades that subvert biometric technologies are highly unlikely to be detected.

Added to that, many biometric schemes involve reference-measures and test-measures being exposed in the data-gathering equipment, networks, intermediate storage and long-term storage. Particularly in long-term storage, the data is highly attractive, and it is impossible to prevent unauthorised uses, and ‘function creep’ to new purposes.

5. Biometrics Errors impose Serious Risks on Powerless People

Biometric schemes are imposed on people by powerful organisations. In most cases, no meaningful consent is involved. Yet the large numbers of failures to capture a usable measure and the many false-positives impact the affected individuals much more than they do the scheme’s sponsor. Everyone who is subject to such errors suffers at least inconvenience and embarrassment. Much more serious problems are created for some people, who may be falsely accused of misbehaviour or crime, unjustifiably detained by authorities, denied access to premises, or miss their flight.

Many biometric schemes effectively declare the individual to be guilty of something, and place the onus on the individual to prosecute their innocence. That is repugnant to traditional concepts of justice. In addition, very few people understand how biometric systems work, and hence very few people are capable of dealing with such situations. Even for those individuals who do understand the technology, it’s very difficult to find anyone administering the system who is capable of carrying on a sensible conversation about the errors involved.

6. Biometrics demand Strong Justification

Because biometrics technologies are so highly privacy-invasive, it is totally inappropriate for organisations to implement schemes without conducting very careful design, demonstrating the effectiveness of the scheme and the ineffectiveness of alternatives, performing privacy impact assessments (PIAs), conducting consultation with affected parties and their representatives and advocates, and preparing cost-benefit analyses that show conclusively that the benefits justify the costs and disbenefits to all parties involved, including and especially the people it is imposed upon.

All schemes have substantial downsides that impact on the people involved. Most potential biometric schemes fail the test, and should not be implemented. Those that have already been implemented should be subjected to critical assessment. This would result in the abandonment of many existing schemes, and the refinement of other schemes in order to ensure that they include appropriate safeguards.

7. Biometrics do not Stop Terrorism

Proponents of biometrics spread misinformation, suggesting that biometric schemes are necessary to combat terrorism. This is simply false (e.g. Schneier 2001, Ackerman 2003, Clarke 2003). Terrorists are defined by the acts that they perform, not by their biometric. Virtually no terrorist act, ever, anywhere, would have been prevented had a biometrics scheme been in operation.

8. Biometrics grant Excessive Power to Corporations and States

Biometrics lays the foundation for corporations and the State to extend their power over individuals. People are cowed by the knowledge that their actions are monitored and recorded. That substantially reduces their capacity to exercise the rights and freedoms that they are supposed to have.

Organisations are in a position to deny access to services, premises and transport to people whose identity they are unable to authenticate, or who they (rightly or wrongly) deem to be a particular person whom they have (justifiably or otherwise) blacklisted. Widespread application of biometrics could see these powers extended to something so far only seen in sci-fi novels and films – outright identity denial.

9. A Highly Intrusive Error-Prone Technology requires Tight Regulation

The protections that are needed against the ravages of biometrics include:

  • legal frameworks
  • public justification for the measure
  • the obligation to perform a PIA
  • the obligation to conduct consultations with affected individuals and their representatives and advocates
  • mechanisms to ensure the outcomes of the PIA are reflected in the scheme
  • features built into technologies and products
  • features designed into manual processes
  • laws regulating biometric technologies
  • laws regulating the practices of all organisations
  • enforcement mechanisms
  • sanctions for breaches
  • enforcement actions

10. Biometrics are Subject to Almost No Regulation

There is an almost complete absence of such protections. There are virtually no statutory protections in place.

A Biometrics Privacy Code has been published, and accepted by the Privacy Commissioner. The Code was produced by the so-called ‘Biometrics ‘Institute’. But that organisation is merely an industry association, and one that grossly compromises accepted principles by including both sellers and buyers inside a single lobby-group. And the purpose of the ‘Institute’ in publishing its Code was to forestall formal regulation. The public interest has been relegated to the role of an onlooker.

That Code has been almost completely ignored by technology providers and user organisations, and has had no impact at all on industry practices. Self-regulation in this, as in so many other areas, has been an abject failure. Yet if organisations had complied with even that weak and ineffectual Code, some of the gross excesses that companies and government agencies seek to impose would have been prevented.