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Former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge: Why body recognition tech will restore trust in society

  • In the months after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security turned to biometrics -- or body recognition technology -- to help with border security.
  • Programs such as TSA PreCheck, Global Entry and smartphones with fingerprint entry also rely on this technology.
  • DHS turned to biometrics on the premise that the best technology removes barriers and simplifies our lives.

In the months after the 9/11 terror attacks, those of us building the nascent Department of Homeland Security were seeking ways to better defend our borders – particularly our air and seaports. The US-VISIT program was created to protect the nation by providing biometric identification services that help federal, state and local government decision makers accurately identify the people they encounter and determine whether those people pose a risk to the United States.

As we pause to recognize the 15th anniversary of DHS, you can see how those early investments in biometrics continue to make an impact today. Programs such as Global Entry and TSA PreCheck rely on biometrics to make travel more convenient and secure for frequent flyers. But that just scratches the surface of how biometrics – our unique body characteristics – will change our lives for the better.

I was an early supporter of biometrics at DHS and remain a champion for the technology. I particularly like how innovative organizations like USAA, which manages bank accounts for millions of our military families and veterans, use the inclusiveness of biometrics to help those veterans access their financial information. By using an app on their smartphone, they can scan a fingerprint, speak a short phrase or take a selfie to authorize transactions – a particularly helpful option when you've lost a limb.

Right before our eyes we are changing from physical trust models to virtual ones. A hundred years ago, our "trust sphere" was small – largely defined by those we needed to interact with – our village or neighborhood, grocery store and perhaps doctor and banker. People recognized us largely through physical face-to-face interactions. In today's ever increasing digital world, to be most effective and leverage the Internet to its greatest possible extent, we need to be able to expand our 'trust sphere' to a much broader set of people and organizations. Some would argue that we made a major mistake in 1960, when we started using the silliest of all ways to prove your identity – a password. Passwords are insecure. They don't require the person they claim to represent to be present in the interaction. They bear no resemblance whatsoever to the individual. And if I have your password, then no system that relies on passwords to authenticate trust can tell you and I apart.

Headlines are typically dominated by the harmful consequences of our trust being violated. It's usually the result of a cyber hack, where passwords have been stolen in bulk and accounts infiltrated. Or, more recently, nasty malware that spreads like wildfire when people open email attachments from others they thought were in their trust sphere – but were not. With each hack a bit of our trust is eroded.

But as we begin at long last to transition away from antiquated passwords to a more secure and convenient way to authenticate ourselves using our own identities, we can start to see the positive consequences of trust – a 'trust dividend'. That's the power of biometrics. When you put the human back into the transaction, it becomes more secure with less friction. No longer are we remembering (or, more likely, forgetting) dozens of passwords. Our identity is always with us and our ability to prove who we are takes just a second or two.

If you're the owner of a smartphone with a fingerprint scanner, you're likely enjoying that convenient, relatively friction-free process many times each day. By simply placing your thumb or finger on the pad, you're unlocking your phone, buying apps and accessing various accounts. You are instantly establishing trust and saving precious time.

Consumers will increasingly be using their mobile phone camera to scan government identity documents, carry boarding passes and authenticate themselves via facial biometrics as they travel. Each day brings new opportunities. Just recently, the World Economic Forum announced a global project called Known Traveller Digital Identity, which leverages biometrics to create virtually hassle-free international travel. Partners like Marriott have signed onto the project because they recognize the potential for biometrics to eliminate barriers we've all grown accustomed to.

When we made the decision at DHS fifteen years ago to go with biometrics to secure our borders, it was based on the premise that the very best technology removes barriers and simplifies our lives. That applies more than ever today with the devices we interact with each day. The Amazon Echo allows us to purchase common household items simply by speaking a phrase. The Apple Watch can unlock our hotel room door without need of a key. Google's self-driving cars will allow us to multi-task on the way to work. At the heart of it all, and the Internet of Everything, is the establishment of trust.

--Tom Ridge was the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and 43rd Governor of Pennsylvania. Today he is chairman of Ridge Global and serves on the board of Daon, a biometrics software company in Reston, VA.