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Technology and Terrorism: At What Price?

Businesses and governments are putting systems in place that can identify people by their unique features. Such biometrics systems can prevent identity theft, fraud and even terrorist attacks. But there is disagreement about how much privacy should be sacrificed for safety.

Biometrics is the science of using computer technology to examine people's unique biological characteristics. The fingerprint is quickly becoming a popular identifying trait in the post September 11 world.

For example, credit card company MasterCard International is testing a biometrics fingerprinting system at its New York headquarters. Senior Vice President for Security and Risk Management, Joel Lisker, says using a fingerprint to identify credit card users makes the cards more secure. "Their privacy is assured," he says. "In addition, it gives the consumer the confidence to know that the likelihood of their card, if lost or stolen, being used somehow against them either to compromise their identity or to simply commit a fraud would be very unlikely."

He says governments can use biometrics in the same way for driver's licenses, visas, and immigration cards. Research Associate at the Center for Immigration Studies John Keeley says theft of U.S. visas around the world has caused a real security problem at entry ports. "Clearly we need to incorporate some integrity into this system to regulate this enormous traffic of comings and goings to our country."

Some governments are already creating entire identification card systems that carry thumbprints. The Hong Kong government has announced it awarded a contract for more than a million such ID cards.

Civil libertarians in the United States worry that biometrics technology will expand too much and compromise people's Constitutional rights.

Director of technology studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, Wayne Crews, says the government could use biometrics information to track the movements of its citizens, and that could infringe Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure, and self-incrimination. "Having a voluntary agreement with MasterCard to use biometric information for your purchases is fine. But it's a bad move for the government to mandate that kind of sharing," says Mr. Crews. "We're a free society, and we value our ability to come and go and we value even our right to anonymity. When you have a situation where government puts us all into a database, you take away that notion."

He says the more biometrics techniques are used, the more suspicious society will become. And he says it's not clear whether the benefits outweigh the sacrifices.