Survey: Support for Biometrics, but Concern over Cost, Abuses

SAN FRANCISCO and NEW YORK -- Most Americans support adding biometric identifiers to existing government-issued ID documents, including passports (79 percent), Social Security cards (75 percent) and drivers' licenses (74 percent), according to a nationwide survey conducted by TNS, the world's largest custom market information company, and TRUSTe, the online privacy leader.

"Including biometric data in ID documents is perceived by the public to help prevent fraud and identity theft, but, at the same time, many Americans express privacy and cost concerns about government use of the technology," said David Stark, privacy officer of TNS.

In June, Congress approved the REAL ID Act, which will require state motor vehicle agencies to use a common machine-readable technology and other federal ID standards in drivers' licenses by 2008. The new requirements will be established by the Department of Homeland Security and could include adding biometric information to drivers' licenses, such as fingerprints or retinal scans.

The TNS/TRUSTe survey of 1,003 American Internet users asked for their views on different types of biometric technology. More than eight in ten point to fingerprinting as the most acceptable form of biometric identification, followed by iris scans (58 percent), hand geometry (50 percent) and voice recognition (48 percent).

The survey also asked whether Americans would support a brand new, national identity card issued to every citizen. Just half of people polled say they would view such a card positively, one-third are opposed and 17 percent are undecided.

In addition, Americans were asked for their opinions on the potential consequences of biometric technology programs, including government misuse of information and reliability of the technology. The most widely cited concern (75 percent) is the potentially high cost of implementing a biometric program. People also believe (71 percent) that criminals will find a way around the technology, although nearly seven in ten Americans (69 percent) think that identity thieves would have a harder time plying their craft.

"We are in the business of understanding and responding to the public's needs and concerns when it comes to privacy," said Fran Maier, executive director of TRUSTe. "Biometric technology is clearly ahead of public opinion, as the potential benefits and risks are still not well understood. A sizeable number of people don't yet have enough information to form opinions on key issues," continued Maier.

"Before biometric IDs become the norm in public and private use, we need to have thoughtful consideration of what constitutes public and private information, as well as the various methods for protecting that information."

The survey revealed other telling numbers illustrating the public's perception and position on biometrics and ID issues, including:

-- Nearly three-quarters claim to have heard of biometrics

-- Two in ten do not trust the technology, four in ten have varying degrees of confidence in it and almost as many are undecided

-- Only 8 percent register an unfavorable opinion of biometrics-protected passports

-- Supporters of a new national ID card are more than twice as likely as opponents to believe that biometrics would impede terrorists' ability to operate in the U.S.

-- Of those who are against the introduction of a new national ID card, 80 percent fear there is high potential for government misuse of information

The TNS/TRUSTe survey was conducted online in March 2005 in the U.S. and was fielded in Canada in May. E-mail invitations were sent to a nationally representative sample of the TNS NFO Internet Access panel, comprised of more than one million U.S. households who have agreed to participate in survey research from time to time. In total, 1,003 online interviews were completed and the survey results are considered accurate to within three percentage points, 19 times out of 20.