Digital Life

This Week’s Topic: Your Body Is Your Password

House of the long shadows
House of the long shadows, by Stefano Mortellaro on flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Solana Larsen
Written by Solana Larsen

Web We Want’s new newsletter highlights one important topic every week and tells you what you need to know in 3 minutes or less.

What’s Going On?

Identification by fingerprint, face or iris scanning is considered secure but it really depends on how this “biometric” data is collected and stored — and who has access to it — whether governments, corporations or hackers. Fingerprinting is a 100 year old practice, but now, as it is matched with global communications networks, the risks are entirely new.

With biometric data, the risks of surveillance and involuntary identification are huge
Doors and devices can now be unlocked at the touch of a finger. And many countries have adopted biometric identification systems for more efficient delivery of government services, banking and healthcare. Unfortunately, privacy protections have not arrived at the same rate.

Any database can have errors, but with biometrics there is an additional risk of misuse and misidentification — and being up against a system that is considered infallible. Correcting errors can be difficult. Sometimes, innocent people are swept up in systems for tracking criminals, as happens to thousands on the U.S. government terrorist watchlists.

Who’s Doing Something?

Few people have a clue what happens to their data once they hand it over. Privacy groups, locally and internationally, are working to rein in companies and governments so there are clear rules about how data is shared across borders and how individuals should give consent.

Tensions are surfacing. One of the largest biometric projects in the world, India’s “Aadhar” ID system, has been on trial recently in the Indian supreme court (read this by privacy petitioner, Shyam Divan) with the government openly questioning whether citizens have a constitutional right to privacy.

Refugees are often coerced by police into registering their fingerprints in the European Union’s Eurodac database, a practice the German Institute for Human Rights finds questionable, in part because it carries the assumption that asylum-seekers are automatically suspects even when there is zero evidence of any crime.

What Should I Do?

Inform yourself about how the technology works and weigh the pros and cons on your own.

 Talk to your friends about the surveillance risks and dangers of misidentification.

Connect with privacy rights groups in your country and support them.

 Think twice before you hand over biometric info to anyone. Read the fine print, and if you you have an alternative option, use it.

Further reading:

About the author

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen is co-author of the cookbook "Recipes for a Digital Revolution". She writes a newsletter for Web We Want and helped create this website. Formerly, she was the managing editor of Global Voices Online. Solana is a Danish-Puerto Rican journalist and digital activist.


  • I generally support webwewant and it’s aims.

    However, I want to complain about this article. It’s whipping up fears without properly stating what the risks are. It doesn’t distinguish between collection and usage by governments, and other bodies. It doesn’t offer any framework for assessing what are and aren’t legitimate uses. It doesn’t inform us what safeguards, if any, are in place. …….

  • Thanks for the comment. I think that’s a fair complaint. It’s hard to be thorough and super brief about a general topic at the same time. My goal was to introduce the potential risks so people anywhere in the world could begin to think what questions they should ask for themselves. The links to further reading offer a lot more answers than I do.

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