‘Biometrics’ describes the physiological and behavioral characteristics of individuals. This could be fingerprints, voice, face, retina and iris patterns, hand geometry, gait or DNA profiles. Biometrics are deployed by governments – including national ID schemes, voter registration and at borders. Biometrics are also being used in development and humanitarian initiatives eg. refugee registration, and by private companies eg. banks.

There are two parts to the employment of any biometric system. Firstly, biometric technologies capture and store characteristics in a database in order to identify an individual. Secondly, the information in this database is cross-referenced to verify or authenticate an individual’s identity in a range of contexts eg. when accessing government services, or crossing borders, to enable an individual to vote, access bank accounts, access health services etc.

In the past few years, there has been an uptake in countries launching expensive and data intensive biometric programmes, such as the Aadahar project in India and biometric voting systems across Africa, as well as in the development and humanitarian sector.