Think You Know Biometrics?

Biometrics for a Better World

Life-Changing Technology at Work

As you’ve read in previous installments of Think You Know Biometrics, biometric technology is versatile. It can thwart criminals, streamline travel, add convenience to everyday routines, and protect national borders. It can free up valuable resources, dismantle entrenched modes of doing business, and encourage honest behavior. It’s a powerful tool—which means that stories of biometric success aren’t hard to find. As biometric technology continues to become more sophisticated and expand into additional use cases, we anticipate a bright future. Here are four areas where biometrics is bringing a better tomorrow into focus:

Smarter Food Aid in Africa

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Humanitarian organizations all over the world are adopting biometrics for aid distribution, citing biometrics’ ability to facilitate a more efficient use of resources and the role of accountability technology in preventing fraud. While these are certainly powerful reasons to adopt biometrics, a positive ROI isn’t the only indicator of the technology’s impact. Hearing how aid recipients feel about biometric programs is also crucial in gauging their success.

In a recent write-up on its hybrid biometric ID and voucher program for food aid, the WFP asks recipients what they think about the new method of distributing food aid. One young mother’s story is particularly compelling and illustrates how technology can be a force for good. For Maria, a Burundian refugee and mother staying in Uganda, the strength of the new biometric program lies in its ability to reassure recipients that aid is being distributed fairly.

According to Maria, the previous system for disbursing aid was inefficient and made her life more difficult. “It was always a fight and a scramble — a real challenge when I had my baby on my back,” Maria is recorded as saying. “It is now a lot less hectic.” Tellingly, Maria has one request: “Just promise you won’t change things back to how they were.” Judging by the WFP’s continued implementation of biometric programs, Maria shouldn’t have to worry.

Lunch Line Biometrics in the USA

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As food aid programs around the world benefit from using biometrics, food distribution programs a little closer to home are beginning to incorporate the technology as well—school lunch lines. Since the early 2000s, biometric scanners for public school cafeterias have been streamlining payment for school lunches. Biometrics was initially tapped as a practical alternative to ID cards and PIN numbers—especially since these present problems for younger children. It’s distressing to think that a child might go without due to being bullied for their lunch money or having lost their lunch card.

Protecting low-income students from undue scrutiny is another mark in favor of biometrics. In districts where large socioeconomic divides exist between students, being marked as receiving a free lunch can be embarrassing. Non-biometric methods of payment in the lunch line can draw attention to these distinctions, singling out kids who are eligible for aid. No child should be made fun of for receiving assistance, particularly in cases where those meals could be the only nutritious and balanced meal they eat all day.

Another “plus” for lunchroom biometrics is its ability to streamline auditing and budgetary analysis. When seeking grant money for nutritional programs, schools have to be diligent record-keepers. This can be tough with traditional methods like cash or a school account—or with notoriously flawed IDs and PINs that can be shared or stolen. Biometrics take uncertainty out of the equation and make record-keeping easier. If the barrier to receiving a grant for improved nutritional programs is better record keeping, districts can’t afford to ignore the possibilities of biometrics.

Ugandan-Led Biometric HIV/AIDS

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Medical aid is seeing a host of advantages from the use of biometrics, especially in areas where a high percentage of the population tests positive for HIV. Uganda, for example, is home to a CDC-backed program that registers HIV patients and tracks their treatment. This Monitoring and Evaluation Technical Support (METS) program is run by the Makerere University School of Public Health—and is staffed by Ugandans rather than foreign aid workers.

Using local expertise, university resources, and biometric technology, the METS program is spearheading a data-centered response to HIV/AIDS in Uganda. The aim is to coordinate the Ugandan public health response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, use biometrics to improve the monitoring and evaluation of response programs for HIV/AIDS patients, enhance their disease surveillance capabilities for “priority conditions,” and strengthen the country’s information infrastructure for healthcare.

The program recently uncovered a need for health department leadership to be properly trained in data management practices. Biometrics helped reveal discrepancies in data which had hampered the effectiveness of earlier efforts. In response, the METS program sponsored a number of fellowships for Ugandan health district higher-ups and essential personnel to support the push for cleaner data. Besides the obvious upsides to a program dedicated to registering and keeping track of high-risk patients in an outbreak area, the METS program is giving Ugandans the tools to create and maintain a modernized healthcare system. That’s powerful stuff.

Protection for Indian Families using Aadhaar

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Thanks to its massive scale, India’s Aadhaar program has been a high profile proof-of-concept for biometric citizen registration—and the proof is certainly plentiful. Since 2014, the program has saved India over 11.5 billion dollars (75,000 crore rupees) by facilitating secure and direct transfer of benefits and uncovering widespread fraud in many areas of benefits disbursement. Cost savings on public entitlement programs are an obvious upside to the program, but biometrics doesn’t just serve to weed out fraudsters. It can also help protect the vulnerable.

According to Dr. Ajay Bushan Pandey, head of UIDAI (the Unique Identification Authority of India), Aadhaar is being used to reunite missing children with their families. Imagine a young child who is accidentally separated from her family. In all likelihood, a very young child may not be able to name family members’ surnames or explain where she lives. With no means of identification, a small child would also be an easy mark for kidnappers. But if the child is registered with Aadhaar and her fingerprint is captured by a police officer or used at any registered biometric device for any reason, there’s no way to hide the child’s true identity.

Earlier this year, a 12-year-old boy with mental disabilities was found wandering on the outskirts of Paradip, on India’s eastern coast. Officers tried to speak to him, but he was unable to communicate. They took the child to the UIDAI office in the hopes that he had been registered in the Aadhaar database—and he was. His mother and father had moved to the area recently to look for work, so the boy was not around people who knew him or his family. Without Aadhaar, he might have been permanently lost or worse, harmed. Instead, he was quickly reunited with his family. With a simple swipe of a finger, tragedy was averted.

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