NCP: Privacy Villain of the Week: DARPA's HumanID at a Distance

J Plummer jplummer at
Fri Oct 25 14:19:34 PDT 2002

Privacy Villain of the Week:
DARPA's HumanID at a Distance

The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency <> has 
been one of the more fruitful government agenies in the past, its DARPAnet 
computer network being the foundation for what would become the Internet 
some years later. That is why reading about what this outfit is up to now 
can at times be disheartening. One such project is the HumanID at a 
Distance program, which aims to move beyond face-recognition technology and 
purportedly identify people by the way the walk.

The idea here is that by measuring with video or (clothes-penetrating) 
radar the distance between, say, 17 different points on the body 
<> and measuring how these 
points move in relation to one another, a person can be positively and 
uniquely identified.

This "gait technology" by itself is neutral of course, just as technologies 
such as a gun or a needle or or the banging of flint against stone. The 
problem here arises in that by funding such research, the government is 
pushing a technology on society that it has not freely accepted through the 
voluntary choices made in the market. A patina of legitimacy is 
unfortunately added to such technologies when they have the imprimatur of 
the state behind them.
Even when the lead researchers on the project issue a press release 
<> with conflictuing 
estimations of accuracy ranging from .0001% to 95%.

These selfsame researchers go on to tout the tech for use "around federal 
buildings" and in airports (which have now had their security systems 
completely taken over by the federal government). The airport situation is 
particularly troubling, in that it would be installed after the new 
Transportation Security Agency has complete control of all US airports. 
Adding the full-body radar scans that are part of a gait-biometric system 
to their CAPPS database incorporating name, Social Security number, credit 
history, travel history, etc., is a small step. This would be another peice 
of information in a federal database left wide open to abuse by not only 
those with official and unofficial clearance but anyone who bribes or hacks 
their way in.

In addition, the potential for false positives seems to be overwhelming. 
Even if the number is closer to 95% than .001%, what happens when a heavy 
piece of luggage and lack of sleep slumps the shoulders enough to peg a 
weary traveler as a dangerous terrorist? Is he or she strip-searched and 
detained by armed federal employees while the plane to his mother's funeral 
leaves for the other coast? This kind of technological forcing, especially 
in situations controlled by the state, puts individuals in a position 
where, due to lack of adequate societal knowledge, individuals are unable 
to control the kind of information being disseminated about themselves.

Identification technology has its uses. But when government forces it on 
everyone, from a Social Security number onward, the long-term effects are 
net negative -- oversurveillance , undersecurity, identity theft, etc. 
DARPA scientists and their colleagues at places like Carnegie Mellon 
<> and Georgia Tech may be taking great strides 
forward -- but do they recignize where to, or why this may earn them the 
title of Privacy Villain of the Week?

The Privacy Villain of the Week and Privacy Hero of the Month are projects 
of the National Consumer Coalition's Privacy Group. Privacy Villain audio 
features now available from FCF News on Demand. <> 
For more information on the NCC Privacy Group, see or 
contact James Plummer at 202-467-5809 or jplummer at . 

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