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Biometrics

Exploring how the governance of biometric data and technologies can be strengthened to keep pace with new applications and ethical questions

The context

Biometric technologies, from voice recognition to digital fingerprinting, have proliferated through society in recent years. While these technologies promise various societal benefits in terms of convenience and security, they also raise deep ethical and societal concerns.  

Over the past few years, live facial recognition (LFR) has served as the poster child for biometric controversy, prompting worries about the potential of the technology to be used as a tool for surveillance and oppression, as well as about technical failure and differential rates of accuracy for different groups.  

But the challenges presented by biometric technologies are not limited to facial recognition. Other forms of biometric identification, such as voice recognition, pose similar questions to those presented by LFR.  The emergence of systems that use biometric data to make inferences about people’s characteristics (such as their gender, race and sexuality) raise further questions about if and how biometric systems and data can be used responsibly. 

There has been an ongoing debate about the adequacy of the UK’s regulatory and oversight structures to grapple with new uses and instantiations of biometrics data and technologies. While both the European Union and the USA have been working on introducing new legislation and regulations in response to the rise of new biometric capabilities, such as facial recognition, the UK regulatory landscape remains a piecemeal mix of existing statutory law, novel case law, and emerging practice.  

Ada’s approach

We have been working to disentangle the complex ethical and policy challenges raised by biometric technologies, and to explore the potential for regulatory and oversight reform in the UK and Europe. Our work on biometrics has three strands: 

  1. Engagement with the public on their views, hopes and concerns regarding biometric technologies.
    • In 2019, the Ada Lovelace Institute published the findings of Beyond Face Value, the first national survey of public opinion on the use of facial recognition in the UK.
    • Throughout 2020 the Ada Lovelace Institute established the Citizens’ Biometrics Council to deliberate on the use of biometric technologies. The Council included a demographically diverse group of 50 members of the UK public. They participated in a series of in-person and online workshops between February and October in 2020, resulting in the publication of a major report in March 2021.
  2. Assessing the current state of the law on biometrics.
    • We have commissioned an independent legal review of the governance of biometric data in the UK, led by Matthew Ryder QC, which is due to report in early 2022. The ‘Ryder Review’ will examine the existing regulatory framework for biometrics and identify options for reform that will protect enable the use of biometric data, such as facial characteristics, fingerprints, iris prints and DNA, in a trustworthy and rights-respecting manner.
  3. Researching and developing policy on the specific regulations, accountability mechanisms and institutional frameworks required for the responsible deployment of biometric technologies. 
    • Building on the evidence and insight generated from our public engagement work, our legal review of biometric governance and from sustained engagement with experts in the field, the Ada Lovelace Institute is in the process of developing policy analysis and recommendations on how the regulation and oversight of biometrics in the UK needs to be strengthened.  

The impact we seek 

Our Biometrics programme enables us to achieve our strategic goals in the following ways: 

  • We have anticipated transformative innovation in the biometrics sector through commissioning the first national survey of public attitudes to facial recognition, and beginning research on a policy and statutory framework for biometrics which pre-empted proposals by the European Union’s on this topic. 
  • We are amplifying the voices of people by injecting public attitudes and deliberative public input into contentious public and legislative debates. 
  • We are rebalancing power over data and AI by clarifying the existing statutory framework for governing biometrics, and providing policy analysis and recommendations to promote responsible use of biometrics data and technologies. 
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Projects

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Reports

Report

30 March 2021

The Citizens’ Biometrics Council

Report with recommendations and findings of a public deliberation on biometrics technology, policy and governance

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From the Ada blog