from the all-aboard-for-the-surveillance-state dept
Despite repeated warnings from security experts about their problems, biometrics are gaining in popularity for all kinds of applications, many of them inappropriate. Here's another group that is so enamored of the technology it seems it hasn't thought things through:
Rail passengers could be charged for journeys by fingerprint or iris scans, according to the industry's plan for coping with growing demand.
Biometric technology would enable fares to be automatically charged, the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) said.
As the Guardian article explains, the RDG is the main organization representing the UK railway industry. It sees the move to biometrics as a continuation of current experiments:
[RDG] claimed such a system could follow on from the use of smartphones' Bluetooth signals to open station barriers, which will be trialled on Chiltern Railways' route between London Marylebone and Oxford Parkway over the coming months.
At least Bluetooth signals have the virtue of operating quite quickly, and from a certain distance. It's hard to see how fingerprints or iris scans will be so slick in practice. As we've noted before, there are serious problems with getting fingerprint scans for the general public to work on a large scale, and those difficulties are likely to be exacerbated when people are in a hurry to catch a train.
Iris scans typically require the subject to stand on a certain spot and to keep still while their eye is checked. As anyone who has been through some airports around the world knows, iris scans often take several attempts to recognize someone, and may fail altogether, which requires a manual check elsewhere. In the context of a busy station, this seems a recipe for disaster.
But there's a possible solution to these problems. Instead of using the rather unreliable fingerprints or iris scans, why not move on to facial recognition? Unlike the other forms of biometrics, facial recognition systems seem to be getting better all the time. It can't be long before the rail operators suggest that deploying this technology in stations would be a great way to allow people to pay without needing to buy physical tickets or even stop as they head off for their train.
But that would effectively create a huge surveillance database of everyone moving through the rail system -- including those who prefer to travel using anonymous means like cash. And once that database existed, it would only be a matter of time before the authorities point out that it would be ridiculous not to use this valuable information in order to capture bad people who might harm society. As it happens, it was revealed last week that the UK government is already using that argument to access confidential records held on a national health database in order to track down "immigration offenders."