Can HR Adapt as Biometric IDs Become Reality?

HR must be even more vigilant as ID cops and stewards of employee privacy

By Aliah D. Wright Apr 20, 2010
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You are Australian.

You are entering the United States for the first time on business. As you proceed through customs you are not led to a gate agent, but rather to a machine that scans your passport and your retinas, records your metabolism, takes your photo and uploads it to a program that makes a 3-D rendering of your face, which is then sent out over the Internet and matched against profiles in various social networking sites.

While this scenario might not be in our present, it could be in our not-too-distant future, experts say. In September 2009, the FBI announced that it was replacing its fingerprint file with a biometric system that will include DNA records, 3-D facial imaging, palm prints and vocal scans.

Foreigners traveling to the U.S. are fingerprinted and have digital photographs taken of them. The photos are stored or checked against a government database managed by the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program. Maritime employees and those entering ports are required to get a biometric ID card called the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC).

Privacy concerns have been echoed across the globe. Technology is advancing faster than laws to regulate it—in the United States and abroad. Eventually HR could be on the front lines of storing biometric data and, just as in the case of E-Verify, being responsible for making sure that people are who they say they are. As a result of the advances in biometrics, experts suspect that the penalties HR might face could be more stringent.

While the United States is continuing its debate into a biometric identity card for everyone authorized to work in the country, some nations have already issued biometric ID cards.

In 2009, the United Kingdom began issuing national ID cards, which include two fingerprints and a photograph encoded on a chip. In 2010, the U.K. discontinued the practice. France has the Carte Vitale, a biometric health insurance card. Bulgaria began issuing new biometric passports and ID cards at the end of March 2010. Other countries with biometric ID cards include Albania, Argentina and Brazil. India will soon begin using biometric identifiers. Canada has already begun using biometrics in the areas of immigration and border security.

A New Kind of ID

Biometrics isn’t limited to fingerprints anymore.

Experts in the field of biometric identification from the military, other federal agencies and the White House converged at the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement’s third annual Biometrics for National Security and Defense conference just outside Washington, D.C., in mid-March 2010.

There they explained that, depending on where you are in the world, biometrics can include scans of the retinas, irises, palms and veins in the hands. Other methods include voice and facial recognition and DNA analysis. Eventually a person’s metabolism will be identified using thermal imaging devices.

“Everyone has a unique metabolism,” said Greg Fritz, a biometrics expert for the U.S. Department of Defense. “From a distance you can use infrared sensors to determine that person’s identity.” He said there are even cell-phone applications allowing people to “take a picture of someone across the room [and the] software will make a 3D image of them and then make a capture of that face and match it up on social networking sites.”

He added, “We’re just scratching the surface of what we’re going to be able to do when we add DNA to the mix.”

Capturing and storing biometric data will be challenging—particularly for human resource personnel who eventually might be required to verify identities thoroughly as part of the employment process or face stiff fines. That alarms some HR experts. Others say this type of information joins massive amounts of data already available and that HR will do what it always does—adapt.

“The ability to comply—if and when laws are passed—may not exist with existing technology, but with some add-on capabilities” it shouldn’t be a problem, said Cassie Fireman-Barajas, chief performance officer for Knowledge Infusion, a human capital management consultancy.

Fireman-Barajas believes HR will adapt—just as it did when the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and I-9 forms were introduced.

“Initially there will be a lot of uncertainty and apprehension because of the types of data it is, but there would be a leveling effect of that over time,” she said.

Lawrence P. Lataif, senior immigration counsel at the Florida law firm of Shutts & Bowen LLP, echoed that sentiment.

“Consider the databases federal government agencies already have on each of us: Social Security, Department of Defense, FBI, IRS, immigration and border patrol, passport office, Medicare, Veterans Affairs, Medicaid and the Census Bureau, to mention just a few,” he said. “Then consider the enormous amount of our personal information that’s in databases of state government agencies: drivers’ licenses, medical information, marriage records, school records and more.” He mentioned the amount of data we give up voluntarily on places like Facebook and other social networking sites.

“Can anyone imagine any data on an ID card that is not already in a computer database? If we’re honest, we must admit that we have lost much of our privacy as a result of computer saturation,” Lataif said.

HR Might Not Adapt

Others aren’t so sure things will go smoothly for HR. “This is one of those technologies that plays well politically and in the movies but actually is rather problematic,” said Geoff Feldman, a software developer and owner of Seabase Consulting. “It uses up a lot of tax dollars [and] possibly lulls people into a false sense of security.”

As technology advances, other problems might crop up as well, like “how will a stored biometric be used to verify someone later—with a different and perhaps more advanced device?” Feldman asked. “Even then you are counting on a device that has not been tampered with or tricked.”

Les Rosen added: “Given the amount of ID theft we have, why would anyone think that biometrics would be safe?” Rosen is a former California deputy district attorney, president of Employment Screening Resources and author of The Safe Hiring Manual—The Complete Guide to Keeping Criminals, Imposters and Terrorists Out of Your Workplace (Facts on Demand Press, 2007).

“The real issue of course is proof of who a person really is at the stage where the biometric ID is issued. If a thief or criminal can successfully steal identity and then get a biometric card in someone else’s name, it would be very hard for a victim of ID theft to recover their own identity,” said Rosen.

“The idea of the government storing biometric information on everyone sends shivers down the spine of privacy advocates,” added Scott Simpson, a partner with the HR firm Cambria Consulting, Inc. “Biometrics are hardly a fail-safe, either. A fingerprint, once in a database, is just a file that can be stolen and transmitted and doesn't give the level of security some might think.”

Whatever happens, HR must be prepared but probably shouldn’t panic, Fireman-Barajas countered.

“It’s going to have to be evolutionary,” she said, of adapting to changes. “As technology advances there’s going to be litigation that will occur, which then helps set the framework for the laws over time,” she predicted. “The laws then get interrupted based on various litigations, and I think we’ll see the same thing happening with biometrics and how it’s going to get used.”

Lataif said that eventually “a biometric national ID card will ease the burden on employers in carrying out their employment verification obligations and increase individual privacy by dramatically reducing identity theft and database hacking.” He believes that “once the public experiences the benefits of the card, demand for the cards will, for several years, outstrip the federal government’s ability to produce them.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.​

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