Dystopian Biometrics: The cross-roads at which we stand

Have you ever wondered what would happen if biometric identification solutions become mainstream without proper checks and balances? Join us in a deep dive through the rabbit hole of Dystopian Biometrics: The cross-roads at which we stand!

Dystopian Biometrics: The cross-roads at which we stand

Did you know that there are over 250 Hollywood movies (starting from 1951 to 2021) that highlight the use or misuse of biometric identification technology in their plot?  From fingerprints to facial or iris scans and voice recognition, or scanning the DNA or reading brainwaves, if we have dreamt of a possible use of biometrics, it has been in the movies.

Star Trek (1966 -) which featured voice ID, Retina Scans, Face Recognition, along with a hand held device called the Tricorder which could scan lifeforms to record technical data, diagnose diseases and body statistics. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) which used voice ID and Face Recognition.  The Blade Runner (1982) which used a Retina Scan that could be used as a polygraph, identify emotions, and could do “liveness detection (meaning could tell if you were a human or a replicant)”.  Robocop (1987) turned face recognition into something that the RoboCop could scan on the fly, match it with a major database, and send the info to wearable tech applications for law enforcement.  ALIEN: Resurrection (1997) used “Breathprint” technology and hand scans.  Starship Troopers (1997) introduced Brain Scans in the form of psychic abilities and in the form of abilities by bugs who could scan, read, and steal knowledge and memories from brains. In the Minority Report (2002), a citywide optical recognition system identifies people, tracks their movement, sends the data to law enforcement, and even sends customized advertising to you based on your identity.  In I, Robot (2004) Voice ID and scans of closed fists were used as ID.  District 9 (2009) introduced DNA-enabled trigger locks on guns, but Dredd (2012) took it a step further and tagged each round of ammo with the DNA of the gun’s owner. There are countless more that use one form of biometric identification or another, and many more that combine the use of facial recognition with nationwide databases and the help of AI to spy on people or track down their targets…

But one of, if not the first, movie to focus on the use of biometric technology to solve crime, the misuse of such information to frame an innocent person for a crime he did not commit, and the abuse of power by shaking down a suspect using “scientific white lies” (in other words abusing the ignorance of others), was a 1951 black and white film called “Fingerprints Don't Lie”.

Setting aside the fact that the acting was just as bad as, if not worse than their understanding and use of biometrics in general, the movie, like most movies since, still managed to get a few things right.

First of all, yes, biometrics can help identify a person.  Second, there are more than one modalities, as in your fingerprints are not the only way to confirm that you are you. Third, if your private biometric data is stolen and misused, you could be framed for a crime you did not commit, placed in a place you were not, or (although not in this movie) give access to private information or areas with limited access.  And finally, that things can get real scary if those who are in power misuse this information or do not keep it secure (or in the case of this movie, being used by the police commissioner to frame an innocent third party to cover his own crimes).

Naturally, the scope of “biometrics” goes beyond just an ID solution in the movies, such as reviving dinosaurs from DNA samples, the use or misuse of genetic manipulation, or just basic biological engineering.  The oldest such movie is probably the Island of Lost Souls (1932) which is the first sound film adaptation of H. G. Wells' 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.  But probably one of the most dystopian “biopunk” movies that lead the pack when it comes to the use of biometrics is Gattaca (1997).  Potential children are conceived through genetic selection, and your DNA determines where you can work, how much you can earn, who you can marry, what you can achieve in life, and so on. The more money and power, the better genes.  The better genes, the more money and power.  If you don’t have the right genes, don’t worry. “Legally speaking” you cannot be discriminated against. But in a world where absolutely everything is determined by the quality of your DNA and everyone is closely monitored, who are you kidding?

All in all, whatever movie you watch, whichever book you read, what is clear is that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and that road is usually owned by big corporations, dysfunctional governments, or a handful of powerful people.

(source: The Mummy)

What is really scary though, is that in this day and age, you don’t even have to watch TV shows that focus on the use or misuse of biometrics, or dig too deep into the thousands of SF novels that strike fear in the hearts of their readers as they talk about digital slavery or a dystopian future that is triggered based on the control of everyone’s biometrics.  You just need to read the newspaper, or do a little research on the web to see what is happening in the real world to realize that based on the current trajectory, we may be close to the point of no return concerning the disregard of your basic human rights when it comes to your biometrics.

Group one:  The User

In general, when we are talking about biometric identification, there are 3 groups of people.  The first is the average person, like you or me, who can be put in the “user” group.  We basically use biometric identification solutions because it makes life so much easier.  I mean really.  Just the fact that you can use your face instead of a password to keep all of those secrets that you stash in your smartphone safe makes things so much easier.  Most likely, you are wishing that you can turn all of your passwords into a simple biometric identification solution because hey, who wants to set complicated passwords every 3 months when you know for a fact that you will forget it the day after you set it.  Even if you write it down somewhere, who can guarantee that that piece of paper will not get lost, thrown away, stolen by a family member who just needed something to scribble on, or eaten by your dog.  And if you set your password to something easy to remember, well, why even bother, since anybody and their dog can guess it.  I mean, there is a reason that the top 3 passwords are guest, 123456, and password.

Group two:  The Government

The next group is the government.  Many countries have made it mandatory for their citizens to register a number of modalities such as fingerprints, retina scans, and face scans to “better manage the data, and prevent crimes”.  They usually start out by trying to prevent scams revolving around national insurance, welfare, and subsidies.  And then there is law enforcement which is using databases of fingerprints or DNA so that they can identify fingerprints or DNA from crime scenes.  Then they go ahead and start doing camera surveillance of whole cities looking for “criminals on the run”, possible criminals or terrorists, suspicious activities,  or to make sure that they are able to record the crime in action.

But then that is about the time when they usually start wanting to do more with the information.  Why not track the movements of “known” troublemakers and “potential” troublemakers?  What about full digital surveillance by AI of known criminals and potential criminals?  Why not just take it a step further and control who gets access to what governmental services depending on your “score” based on “criminal history”, potential ”criminal” traits, political views, family history, keywords that you may have spoken in private phone calls or written in emails, who you live near or where you live, or segregate you by your income, gender, race or religion?  So what if there have been numerous mistaken arrests, ruining people's lives because their system “messed up” or “mistook them for someone else ''?  So what if your data is not 100% secure or accurate? So what if it turns your country into a police state and suppresses your human rights if it is for the “collective good”… right?

Of course, not every country is like this, but then you have China.  You also have a number of countries like Mexico that are not there yet but could be only a few steps away depending on who is in power.

(source: Robocop2014)

Group three: the “Commercial group”, otherwise known as the Merchants

The final group is what I call the “commercial group”.  Of course there are some shops that are thinking about finding ways to prevent shoplifting, or understand how and where their customers go and in what order so that they can better design their shop.. But these companies are the ones that usually end up wanting to know more, and get more “bang for the buck” for the data gathered from security cameras… which can also be used to surveil what people are doing, with whom they are with, how they feel based on facial expressions and body language, and finally how they are likely to behave in the future (gotta make sure they aren't thinking of stealing your products or missing your sales right?).  It would be even better if this data could be tied to where they live, how much they earn, and what their shopping habits are. Needless to say that this usually leads to profiling and categorizing people based on age, gender, and skin color (and that is without going into social behavior).

With this group, things get a little more complicated when it comes to big companies that regularly deal in personal information such as Google, Amazon, Meta, Microsoft, Apple and so on.  These companies already make a killing (er, I mean a LOT of money) by selling your private information (oops, I mean, BigData).

They started out with the same “Need to help the customers” mentality as the retail shops. I mean, a good user experience is key for the users.  If the users are happy, they come back day after day.  If they come back, you can sell advertisements.  If you know what user to target for what advertisement, you get more money from the companies buying the advertisements.  And if you get more money, it makes you and your stakeholders happier!  Er, I mean, you are able to develop better services for your customers to make them happier (which means they come back, which means more advertisements, which means more money)!  Your users have already signed away their privacy to you by clicking the “I accept button” without going through the small print anyway.  They get access to your service without directly having to pay money, but someone has to pay the bills, so if you think about it, it is a “Win-Win” situation, right?  The user loses their rights to privacy but gets “free service”, and you make money!  And to make it even better, you can turn around and sell all of that “BigData” to the companies that offer services or sell products on your site, allowing you to make more money, and allowing your “partners” to develop better services and products to start a whole new cycle of happy customers!

It is true that a user can “decline” to sell his or her personal data, it just means that the services can “decline” to offer the user their “free services.”

This group, unlike the retail stores who directly use surveillance cameras, are often not blatantly in the “biometric identification” business yet.  Having said that, there is no way that they are that far away.  Users want to simplify their logins and want a user friendly system.  Companies want to be Sybil resistant and want more data to sell.  Who is there to stop them?

(source: Tech at Meta)

And guess what?  Looking back at all of those SF movies, and comparing them to the various developments that are happening real-time (often sponsored by those big name tech giants), one can easily tell that one growing trend is in the research and development of BCIs (Brain Computer Interfaces).  Although BCIs are not biometric in nature, they will be directly linked into your biometrics… specifically speaking, your brain.  Just imagine the implications to how those tech giants could use this, and what kind of “BigData” could be collected?  What if they can send advertisements directly to your brain based on the gathered data, or just send you the tweets or snippets of news that “you are interested in”... You can already just imagine what is going through the minds of the executives and investors of those tech giants.

“Wait a minute, what if we could direct the user to buy sponsored products by making sure thoughts, or at least hints are implanted in their brains?  I mean, as long as people have the option to “decline” the use of your “free services” all is ok right?  Who cares if they cannot afford the premium privacy plan.  Pay up, or pay us indirectly by signing away your privacy! Right?  Plus, we are not talking about those hated and illegal subliminal messages, because these messages ring loud and clear in your head!”

Naturally, many governments would want to keep the businesses at bay to “protect the rights” of their citizens.  That is, as long as they are able to monitor what is going on in your head, because wouldn’t it be great if the police could detect crime before it happens, right?  Yes, perhaps you just “thought” of blowing a hole in the head of your younger brother for stealing your doughnut, and yes, you think being locked up for “one thought”, serving jail time along with all of these other folks who seem to have had thoughts against the current regime is too much, but the society is safer now right?

The other group

Technically speaking, there is a 4th group.  This is the group that develops and offers biometric identification solutions, develops AI to extract the data from the images and databases, and the companies that create the data sets.  Just looking at facial recognition market alone, the global market size is forecast to reach $12.67 billion by 2028, up from $5.01 billion in 2021.  If you look at the global biometric system market, it is said it will grow from $42.9 billion (this year's estimate) to $82.9 billion by 2027.  It is said that this increase is driven by the various enterprise needs but is also driven by the growing demand from governments and law enforcement agencies, which use the technology to facilitate various social services, assist in criminal investigations, conduct surveillance, or other “security” efforts.

Naturally, these companies tend to be a little more concerned about security and privacy issues, considering that if the tech gets in the wrong hands, it can turn around and bite them. But you can trust the government, known businesses, and law enforcement, right?  Just make them sign a contract saying, “Please make sure you get the consent of the people you are using this against,” and “We will not be held responsible if you mess up”.... Right?

Seriously speaking though, all it takes is one developer with “good intentions” that others can exploit to make a dystopian society a reality.  Biometric identification systems, BCIs, and other technical advancements that utilize your biometrics are the way of the future, and are here to stay. The only question is, how much privacy do you want, and who would you trust with how much data.

Obviously the more privacy the better.  No one wants to wake up in the future just to find that you were denied social services due to your biometric features, such as your DNA or brain waves, the “potential” of your genes, or your thoughts.  Nor do you want to find it hard to concentrate because of all of the “reminders” of the Christmas sale that is happening next week and all of the products that “everyone in your country can't get enough of!” that are flashing across your thoughts.

Where Humanode stands

The  Humanode team agrees that using biometric technology in order to make systems user-friendly, easier, password free, Sybil resistant, and secure is the way to go.  This trend is like death and taxes, it is unavoidable.  Thinking so, we even made the world’s first blockchain that is based on a Sybil resistant one person = one node = one vote system using auditable pseudonymous biometric identity solutions.

Having said that, what we do not agree with is having biometric identification solutions centralized and held by financially motivated big businesses who can exploit that data, nor do we think that it is ideal for governments that are bound by physical boundaries (as in, not truly global) and temporary ideologies to have full control over your biometric data and rights.

This is why Humanode developed what is now known as cryptobiometrics.  It is Sybil resistant, secure, private, and decentralized.  The key is that the cryptographically secure bio-authorized nodes only need 2 pieces of information.  Is this person a unique person who is registered in our system or not, and is this person alive or not (as in is he/she a living person, or a mask, photograph, wax doll, pre-recorded video, deepfake, or someone else pretending to be the user).  That is all the information the system needs.  As Humanode, we do not need to know who the person is, where they live, what the color of their skin or hair is, race, nationality, sex, age, belief, level of education, nor what they had for breakfast.

The only data that is stored in an encrypted and secure enclave is the cryptographically secure 3D mapping of your face.  No one can fully reconstruct this data to see who the person behind the face is, or who you are.

We also believe that a small group of people, no matter how smart, rich, or how good the intentions are, should not have majority ownership or control over such a system.  Thus, every single human node (validator) in the system is an equal owner of the system with an equal voice.  With mainnet running, we will start with roughly 1000 nodes.  In 4 to 5 years, we hope to have up to 1,000,000 nodes running and be fully decentralized.  Humanode will also be developing more and more secure biometric solutions.  As the technological hurdles are cleared, we will be moving from “face scan and liveness detection only” to a multi-modality platform, evolving the system to make it more secure and even more private.

We believe that the privacy of your biometric data is a basic human right.  It is true that many big companies will come along with biometric identification solutions.  Many countries will also try to enforce biometric solutions.  But who says we cannot have an alternative to the centralized systems?  Who says the Web3 community cannot offer solutions and services that can counter the trend toward the centralization of services, money, and power?  But more importantly, who says we can’t work towards a realistic utopian solution to counter the dystopian trend that we see emerging?