Biometrics and Identification after 9/11

Bender's Immigration Bulletin, Vol. 7, P. 150, 2002

23 Pages Posted: 13 Feb 2002

See all articles by Sean M. O'Connor

Sean M. O'Connor

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School, Faculty


Since the events of 9/11, much attention has been given to biometrics - automated human identification techniques based on digital measurements of physiological or behavioral characteristics such as faces, fingerprints, hands, irises, or retinas. The hope is to use biometrics to strengthen our identification procedures in passports, visas, and drivers licenses, or perhaps even to institute a "national ID card" or an "air travel card". But biometric technologies differ widely, and some are better suited for a certain task than others.

Face recognition systems being installed in airports have received the most publicity recently, but other biometrics systems have been in place before 9/11. Biometrics systems are currently used in the public sector for driver licenses, state benefits programs, prisons, and the military. In the private sector they have been installed in ATMs, day care centers, offices, and universities.

The paper describes the main types of biometric systems and their applications while discussing strengths and weaknesses of each. It argues that a clear understanding of these strengths and weaknesses is crucial to decisions whether and where to deploy a biometric system. The paper also reviews new anti-terrorism laws which specifically address biometrics such as USA PATRIOT. Policy considerations are explored regarding the technological limits of biometrics, human field use problems associated with biometrics, unsupported public expectations regarding the efficacy of biometrics, and whether an approach based solely on technology will really solve the problems we face both before and after 9/11. Finally, a different perspective is set out on the current debates over biometrics and ID card systems by focusing on both the most effective use of biometric technologies as well as a need to consider community oriented principles to temper the existing dominant libertarian rhetoric regarding a necessary trade off between security and freedom.

Keywords: Biometrics, identification, national ID card, passports, visas, anti-terrorism, privacy, anonymity

JEL Classification: O30, K30, J61

Suggested Citation

O'Connor, Sean M., Biometrics and Identification after 9/11. Bender's Immigration Bulletin, Vol. 7, P. 150, 2002, Available at SSRN: or

Sean M. O'Connor (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School, Faculty ( email )

3301 Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 22201
United States

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