Peanut Butter & Biometrics

by | Jul 13, 2020 | ICT4D |

Growing up, I had a peanut butter and honey sandwich almost everyday for lunch. It is also one of my son’s favourite foods. Even though Jesus said that ‘people can not live on bread alone’ my son and I wouldn’t mind giving it a try.

However, peanuts are banned from my son’s school. One of his friends has a very severe allergy to nuts (and a few other things). She is not the only one in the school with this allergy, so while we eat it at home, we don’t send him to school with any nut based foods and a few other foods.

In some situations it is critical to know who is who and ensure they receive the correct food, medicine, support and so on. In banks we sometimes need to ‘prove’ who we are to access an account or receive a payment.

We can do this well in ‘local’ situations when we ‘know’ each other. As the scale increases, this becomes more challenging. At a hospital there are challenges with getting the correct food to the right person, but also the correct medicine and treatment. Drug trials would be another context. And overall, we do quite well.

This one of the interesting and challenging use cases of biometrics. Biometrics can help us reduce the error rate of giving the wrong thing to the wrong person. The food tray/parcel/medicines could have a barcode that contains a code of a person’s fingerprint. The delivery person scans the barcode and the recipient places finger on reader to see if there is a match. A bit similar to unlocking your smartphone. One the match is confirmed or denied all data is wiped from delivery person’s device.

However, is this simply targeting the vulnerable of our society? The vulnerable, those with some form of special need, would be the ones who’s biometric details we’d capture and store. On the one hand it can be seen as trying to protect, on the other hand it can be seen as oppressive and invasive targeting of the vulnerable.

Thinking back to my son’s friend and school. It works because it is a local solution. We know her and her family. Therefore is part of the challenge of biometrics a challenge of our definition of efficiency?

Efficiency tends to be defined around scale – how do we serve a million people at the cheapest per head rate possible? Efficiency has become equal to mass production. And edge cases, of which vulnerable people with individual needs are one, become viewed a problem. Mass customisation is viewed as one solution (i.e. Amazon and all online companies). However mass customisation requires massive amounts of data.

Efficiency definitions rarely have space for local solutions. Efficiency discussions tend to take the individual person out of it and replace the actual person with generalised personas. It tends to view the world as an assembly line and industrial problem to solve.

Biometrics is an interesting touchpoint. It is extremely individual and personal. But also extremely impersonal and turn people into a cog in the system.

No doubt more discussion is needed. But first, I need a peanut butter and honey sandwich.

Photo by Cookin’ Cogirl


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