Non-Fiction Reviews

A Very Short Introduction

(2018) Michael Fairhurst, Oxford University Press, £7.99 / US$11.95, pbk, xvii + 124pp, ISBN 978-0-198-80910-4


Biometrics is simply using unique, little changing, biological attributes that we all have for identification purposes.  These include things like: fingerprints, iris patterns, face, voice and even keystroke dynamics.

The problem is this, just a century ago – early in the 20th – most people lived most of their lives very much for the most part within a spatially confined area and interacting (again for the most part) with fewer than the Dunbar's number. In short, for much of the average person's lives everyone knew the people whom they met and had dealings with. Then came greater road and rail infrastructure, the rise of the car (let alone mass air transport) and now the internet, social media, online finance etc, etc. We now met people we do not know and have to interact with them and them us.  Heck, it is unlikely a week gos by when we interact with someone whom we have never met before and may well never meet again.  We need to know that they are who they say they are and we are who we claim to be.  And so we need formal identification.  The problem has become so acute that it is positively tiresome to set up a new online account for something and have to create and remember a new seven digit password, of which one digit must be a numeral and another so Elvish or Klingon glyph… In this world what is needed is something unique, that is personal to us and which we carry everywhere with us. That thing is an aspect of our biological selves, and this is where biometrics comes in.

So, biometrics may seem a rather boring topic, but it is in fact incredibly important and as we move into this century's second and even third decade, it is likely to become an integral part of modern life, so – like it or not – we had better come to grips with it.

Fortunately, we have Oxford University Press' rather nifty series of 'Very Short Introductions' and this, Prof. Fairhurst's handy booklet.

In addition to covering a number of types of biometric used for identification purposes, this booklet does address some of the concerns I have about biometrics. For example, how good is facial recognition as we get older and more wrinkled? In the course of this we come across one of my favourites (which everyone should have been taught at school): type I and type II errors or the chance of you being wrong when you should be right and vice versa. Think of it as the chance a judge lets a guilty person off or alternatively, convicts and innocent; we have to skew the probability one way or the other; we cannot do both at the same time.

Then there is the new stuff.  Among these, Fairhurst covers predictive biometrics such as those that can predict our age.  Such technology does not require plugging into a large database to see if you really are you, but can tell from some aspect of you (such as the way you walk) how old you are.  This is important if you want to enable the elderly access a reserved for the elderly toilet (I invent wildly) or (more realistically) restrict someone under the legal age to consume alcohol from either buying it or entering a pub.

OK, so this booklet barely touches upon the human rights and privacy issues that concern some. The thing is that these 'Very sort Introductions' are – by definition – 'short' and so cannot cover everything. However there is enough in this booklet to convince me of on thing: biometrics will this coming decade become an increasing part of everyday life.  This book also reassures me of one thing: that those designing biometric systems have thought of some of the concerns I have (such as a biometric system failing to identify who I am).  It does leave me with another concern: whether or not those using biometric systems on us have the same understanding of their utility as well as their limitations as have the designers.  Here I am worried. Hope that those that actually use biometrics on us will have read Fairhurst's booklet or at least have the understanding it imparts.

Jonathan Cowie


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