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Last Updated: Monday, 13 November 2006, 12:42 GMT
Under the thumb?
Getty, AP, AP. Fingerprint, security scene, fingerprint machine

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Hiring a car can now mean leaving a fingerprint. And check-out staff are scanning the customers as well as the shopping. Biometrics are entering every day life.

Getting your fingerprints taken would once have meant only one thing. You were helping the police with their inquiries. Now such "biometric" identification is entering the mainstream of every day life.

If you want to hire a car at Stansted Airport, you now need to give a fingerprint.

The scheme being tested by Essex police and car hire firms, is not voluntary. Every car rental customer must take part.

Car hire
No fingerprint, no car hire at Stansted airport

These are stored by the hire firms - and will be handed over to the police if the car is stolen or used for another crime.

Detective Sergeant Vic Murphy, from the CID team at Stansted Airport, says it's a response to criminal gangs targeting airport car hire firms - where cars are driven away using false passports, false licences and false credit cards.

"It's not intrusive really. It's different - and people need to adjust to it. It's not Big Brother, it's about protecting people's identities. The police will never see these thumbprints unless a crime is committed."

Print works

But it hasn't been well received by all customers. Ciaran Moore from Belfast was "astounded" when he was asked for his fingerprint. He thought the staff were joking.

Making fingerprints compulsory, he says, is "disproportionate" and he has written to complain.

Shop in Oxford using finger scanner for payment
A shopper in Oxford using a finger scanner for payment

Mr Moore says that if a fingerprint is needed because cars are being hired with forged passports - then by the same logic, fingerprints should be required for getting on planes.

And he also has concerns about the storing of information such as fingerprints. What happens if someone steals your biometrics?

But the police say the extra security check is reducing fraud. And Europcar, one of the participating firms, says it could be rolled out to all its other locations if the pilot scheme is successful.

In many ways this is the debate over biometrics and ID cards in microcosm. On one side, there's the pragmatic security approach - arguing that old-style checks are no longer effective in a highly-mobile, hi-tech society, and the innocent have nothing to fear.

And on the other, there's an instinctive suspicion about handing over such personal information and about where this security-first approach will lead.

Touch paper

But regardless of any ideological arguments, the use of biometric technology - where someone is identified by a physical characteristic - is already entering the mainstream.

Biometrics graphic

Biometric UK passports were introduced this year, using facial mapping information stored on a microchip, and more than a million have already been issued.

A shop in the Bluewater centre in Kent has used a fingerprint checking scheme to tackle credit card fraud. And in Yeovil, Somerset, fingerprinting has been used to cut town-centre violence, with scanners helping pick out troublemakers.

It's not just about crime. Biometric recognition is also being pitched as more convenient for shoppers.

Pay By Touch allows customers to settle their supermarket bill with a fingerprint rather than a credit card. With three million customers in the United States, this payment system is now being tested in the UK, in three Co-op supermarkets in Oxfordshire.

Terror fears

Once a customer registers, and has their finger scanned, they can use a fingerpad for payment, with the money directly debited from their bank account.

In the United States, the firm has also launched a version for online shopping, with a touchpad attached to a home computer - with the aim of reducing identity fraud.

Biometric passport
There have already been more than a million biometric passports issued

The drive towards using biometrics is also reflected in an acceleration of identification research.

"It seems as if it's going to become part of everyday life," says Dr Maria Pavlou, at the University of Sheffield, the base for the International Centre for Advanced Research in Identification Science.

But no system is without flaws - and this, rather than blocking the use of biometrics, will mean developing multiple checking systems in the future, says Dr Pavlou.

"If someone worked with their hands, such as a builder, there could be cuts or marks that make it difficult to use fingerprints," she says. So identification systems, such as for airport security, would need to be combined with iris or facial recognition.

Iris recognition - using an image of the eye - is particularly reliable, says Dr Pavlou. And it's already being tested in Manchester and Heathrow airports.

There are also projects investigating identifying individuals by their voice and how they walk.

Human rights

While the technology might be emerging, so are the difficult questions? Where will this information be stored? Who will have access? Should there be a centralised control? Why should the records of innocent people be kept in this way?

Human rights organisation Liberty warns that there has been insufficient public debate about the expansion in use of biometrics - and that so far "there are many more questions than answers".

"Is this technology really necessary for what they want to achieve?" says a Liberty spokesperson. "The technology is moving so quickly - but is society being consulted?"

Once these biometric databases are gathered, will the police be able to gain access on "fishing expeditions" for information, asks Liberty. And the campaigning group rejects the argument that "if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear".

"Just because you value your own privacy, it doesn't mean that it's about hiding criminality."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

On a recent trip (for the first time) to Disneyworld, Floriday, I was astounded to find that everyone had to be fingerprinted before even entering the park! (and since there are a few separate parks, I was finger printed about 5 times in one day) Does anyone else find this a bit excessive? Especially for a family theme park! What extra protection could this possibly create?
Liam, London

There is a huge element of Big Brother creeping into society without any say in it from the ordinary man in the street. There is no longer any sense of dignity or respect for personal privacy, we are all being reduced to numbers. The consequences of mistakes or even worse still, malign activity, are mind boggling. The argument that if you have not committed a crime you have nothing to fear, is just ridiculous. Most of us would have huge problems even beginning to fight back, if we were to be mistakenly accused of a crime based on being associated with a number.
Terry Ray, Milton Keynes

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear! I've worked in car rental for 8 years now, and most people are happy to oblige with security checks when they understand the reason. Hire cars are frequently used by criminals and if I had anyone object to the security checks, then I would refuse rental on the grounds that they are hiding something. I sometimes took great pleasure in doing this to the people that whinged about civil liberities! In a number of shops in Belfast I was also asked to put my thumbprint on the store copy of the credit card receipt. Again, I am no criminal, so it posed no threat to my civil liberties whatsoever, and if anything, helps protect other peoples liberities.
Steve, Stafford

Last time through Heathrow, I registered with the Iris recognition system, that was voluntary. However this thumbprint requirement has just been sprung on people, take it or leave it and it is this aproach which I object to.
John Bibby, Oman

In the States it's now common for you to give a fingerprint to cash a cheque at the bank. This practice has been in place for a number of years as a precaution against cheque and cheque card theft. Takes no time and if you are honest why should you worry. My main worry is the reduction in our civil liberties, in even discussing issues openly and freely. That's where we need to fight for our freedoms; this government is out to curtail Magna Carta and our freedom to speech and as individuals. At least in the States, freedom of speech is enshrined in the Constitution. Here it's at the whim of a political party who appears to want to stay in power at whatever cost to our civil liberties.
James, Northampton

If my credit card falls into the wrong hands I can, with proper procedures, cancel it and get another. If my fingerprints go astray, and printing them onto a surgical rubber glove will fool a lot of technologies, where do I get a new set?
Robin Almond, Chatteris

When I visited the USA in July they had great difficulty taking my finger prints, as I am a keen gardener and wear them away with sand and grit, but they let me in. Maybe they would think twice about it now, in view of my address.
Brian, High Wycombe

Why are people so touchy about leaving you fingerprint when you hire a car. I think this is great. I would give it when flying as well. Don't you realise that your personal details are sold for profit, willy nilly by banks, phone companies etc and no-one squawks about that. Do you approve of that? This is for my security and I welcome it as I do ID cards. Criminals should be trembling in fear as security gets tighter safeguarding us from them and their activities.
Sharon, Sutton

I'm not worried about my privacy as much as the security of my data once it's been handed over. Obviously this type of biometric data, if it can be digitally stored could be reproduced and abused or stolen and with it, my biological identity.
Jackie, West Midlands

I believe that the only people who will object to this is those that have something to hide. Its not before time that the honest people of this country stop paying for fraudsters and the like. ID cards and various other biometric tests will help to speed up the process of halting this fraud.
Ernie, Irvine

Wherever you go, whatever you do, you are under suspicion. You have to leave personal details with this or that organisation almost every time you leave the house, just in case you do something. You exist only at the tolerance of the authorities. You have as much freedom does as a cow does in its field, tagged and traced. You are only a number now. All this treating people like livestock is at last starting to produce the society where it is truly only the criminals who are free.
Simon, Manchester

I used to be one of the 'I'm innocent so I have nothing to fear' brigade but with identity theft being rife these days I am becoming more and more reluctant to part with any personal information. With banks being careless enough to dump bank statements who's to say that similar cock-ups won't happen in the future.
Jeremy Orbell, Peterborough

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