Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, April 29, 1998

Not All See Eye to Eye on Biometrics
Iris and fingerprint scanners may soon come to the corner bank or market. Critics fear loss of privacy and theft of electronic identities.
By ERIC SLATER, Times Staff Writer


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In the papillary loops and whorls on the human fingertip, one of nature's lovelier and more mystical truths kept itself hidden for eons. Only a century ago did scientists discover that no two fingerprints are alike.
     In recent decades, science has learned that the rest of the human body is equally unique--the scattered specks of color in the eye, the timbre and tenor of a voice, the gradations of heat rising from a face.
     For years, though, devices designed to recognize such minute anatomical signatures--from facial thermographs to body odor sensors--were found mostly in Defense Department laboratories, spy novels and movies.
     Now, with increasingly accurate and affordable biometric devices beginning to appear in such unexotic places as suburban banks, welfare offices and grocery stores, their practical applications are finally being tested.
     So, too, are issues of security and privacy, with the frontier of civil liberties likely to move beyond random drug testing to include the fingerprinting of employees and the electronic mapping of automated teller machine customers' eyeballs. Such practices, critics suggest, could violate laws governing everything from search and seizure to equal protection.
     A California Assembly bill seeks to regulate the use of biometric devices and data--the first such proposed legislation in the country. Supported by the unlikely alliance of the nonprofit Center for Law in the Public Interest and the California Bankers Assn., the bill would make trafficking in biometric information a crime and, among other things, mandate that if a bank installs, say, fingerprint scanners, it must put them in all branches, not just those in poor neighborhoods.


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