With Australia’s announcement that it is to make passports obsolete by 2020, the realisation of a paperless, cashless society becomes ever more feasible.
Last Sunday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Australia plan to introduce an identification system at their borders to replace passports. The system will use facial recognition and finger scanners to identify travellers. John Coyne, head of border security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has suggested that passengers could simply filter through a corridor rather than stopping at gates.
The system uses biometric technology, which Techtarget defines as “the measurement and statistical analysis of people’s physical and behavioural characteristics”. A common use of biometrics is touch identification, widely available on smartphones.
Alan Goode, founder of Goode Intelligence, has said that “2017 will see biometric adoption at an ever-increasing pace”. He anticipates its increasing adoption in smartphones, luggage locks and home security systems. Other ways of using biometrics are being developed, including voice, heartbeat and vein recognition technology.
There are obvious benefits to using this form of identification; it is very difficult to fake and provides easier verification, rather than having to use a password or passport. Biometrics is enduring and changes very little over the course of one’s life. It is currently used in two-factor authentication and so is generally perceived as a secure way to verify accounts.
However, there are ethical concerns about the use of this technology. On Tuesday, The Guardian reported that Katina Michael, University of Wollong tech and biometrics expert, said “we are steam-training right through all of these technological transitions and we’re not really thinking about the ramifications.”
For instance, is it ethical to impose this system on a populace without asking them? If a system storing this data were to be hacked, it could have dangerous consequences for individuals. The threat of a hack is imminent; in June 2015 the US Office of Personnel Management announced that a hack had resulted in the theft of 5.6 million fingerprints. Prior to this, the UK experienced a hack in 2007 when the HM Revenue & Customs lost confidential details of 25 million child benefit recipients.
Another issue with biometrics is its lack of accuracy. Biometrics is based on the probability of a match rather than being a binary measurement such as a pin number, which is either correct or incorrect. This can lead to false results.
Yet biometric verification is increasingly used and marks a wider move towards a cashless society. A survey conducted in 2016 by Visa Inc. revealed that two thirds of European consumers want to use biometrics when making payments. In fact, in February last year the BBC reported the launch of the MasterCard identity check app that allows users to send selfies as a form of identification. Visa Europe and MasterCard believe that all of their POS terminals in Europe will accept contactless payments by 2020.
Whilst there are obvious benefits to a cashless society, such as eliminating black markets and facilitating easier monetary policies, undoubtedly there are concerns about privacy and exclusion.
In an article for The Guardian, earlier this month Adam Forrest warned of “the danger of exclusion” that this technology presents. A cashless society puts pressure on people to be banked and signed up to a financial system, leading to the exclusion of the poorest people from this system. Wealth is a key factor in determining who can connect with this digitised world.
Another concern is privacy. If all payments were to be made digitally, there would be no anonymity to every single transaction made. The government would be able to track all transactions and such control fuels fears of an Orwellian future.
Although a completely cashless society is not going be realised quite yet, steps towards this are being taken. Just last November, the BBC reported PM Modi’s decision to remove 500 and 1,000 rupee notes from circulation in India, joining the cashless revolution.
Whilst technology is developing at an increasing rate and there are undeniable benefits for its use in security, privacy and the inclusion of all members of society present a challenge.