The Big Deal With Biometric Background Checks

The first thing that probably comes to mind when thinking of law enforcement and biometrics is the booking process—submitting fingerprints in a police station—or perhaps the high color saturation and techno-suspense of a facial recognition montage in an episode of CSI. Forensic science and the post-arrest process seem to be the poster children of biometrics and the law enforcement market, and that makes sense. Both deal directly with crimes after the fact and are a daily reality of law enforcement officers the world over. But there is an aspect of law enforcement that, when properly implemented, stands to prevent crime. Biometrics play an important role in the public safety applications of law enforcement technology, primarily in the realm of criminal background checks.

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Law Enforcement Biometrics Month: The Big Deal With Background Checks
Chances are, if you live in North America and have ever held a position in trust of the public, you have undergone a personal identity check. In fact, a 2012 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management indicates that around 69 percent of employers conduct criminal background checks as part of their hiring process on all job candidates. And it makes sense—the hiring process is arduous, and if an employer or the public is trusting an individual with certain high accountability tasks such as caring for children or chauffeuring customers in the private confines of a vehicle, they will want to have assurance that a person’s history doesn’t make them a safety liability.

Traditionally, there are two methods of conducting a criminal history check: biographic and biometric. The former involves comparing a subject’s name against relevant records that share that same name, searching for red flags on municipal, state, and federal levels. The latter method uses fingerprint biometrics submitted by the subject to find any associated criminal records. As is often found when comparing biographic and biometric methods for identity operations in other sectors such as border security, the fingerprint-based method has proven to be more efficient, convenient, and accurate. The FBI boasts 99.6 percent matching accuracy on searches of its Next Generation Identification database, and according to the IBIA, a biometrics-based background check can be completed between 15 minutes and an hour and a half depending on whether or not the process is expedited.

Still, a stigma tends to hang over law enforcement biometrics when it comes to civilian-facing applications, and nothing currently encapsulates the controversy around the subject quite like the ongoing feud between rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft, and the municipalities attempting to mandate their drivers submit to fingerprint background checks.

“As it stands, biometric background checks are a requirement for a wide range of occupations in the United States.”

Law Enforcement Biometrics Month: The Big Deal With Background ChecksAfter the high profile departure of ride-share giants Uber and Lyft from Austin, Texas, the companies have continued to resist and fight fingerprint-based background check mandates all over the USA, in Florida, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Indeed, the only municipality that has succeeded in both mandating biometric background checks on ride-share drivers and keep Uber’s business has been New York City. Elsewhere, the proponents of public safety continue to press the issue while Uber and Lyft continue to evade biometric legislation that often applies to their old tech taxi driver rivals.

Arguments against biometrics based criminal background checks for rideshare drivers generally tend to orbit assertions of the process’ invasiveness, inconvenience, and tendency to flag minorities who are in a system for minor infractions that might otherwise plague the identity histories of applicants in the majority class. Meanwhile proponents of the fingerprint-based method respond to these objections with assertions of the technology’s convenience, accuracy, and suggestions of oversight in regards to what infractions ought to count as disqualifying pings.

“I’m concerned with public safety and making sure that people who hop into a vehicle know the driver and know that he’s been vetted. We’re looking for violent offenders who have sexual histories or violent histories,” said Boston Police Commissioner William Evans to the press after new legislation passed in Massachusetts stopping short of mandating biometric background checks. “I have no skin in the game here, other than making sure people are safe.”

“Austin has seen Uber competitors spring up in the ride hailing app pioneer’s place that are willing to fingerprint their drivers.”

Law Enforcement Biometrics Month: The Big Deal With Background ChecksThe ridesharing controversy continues to wage across the United States in this manner, exemplifying the conflict that tends to arise when the stigma of new technology meets independent business and conflicts with public safety concerns. As it stands, biometric background checks are a requirement for a wide range of occupations in the United States. Teachers, government workers, security guards, taxi drivers (as mentioned above), school volunteers, and others are required to undergo fingerprint background checks as a prerequisite for employment. And soon, if the current ride-share landscape of Austin, Texas, can be looked to as an example, transportation network company drivers will be on that list too.

Austin has seen Uber competitors spring up in the ride hailing app pioneer’s place that are willing to fingerprint their drivers. As such ride-sharing continues to exist in the city. A report from the City Manager released in August indicated that every transportation network company had reached at least 50 percent compliance with the fingerprinting legislation. Some companies could even boast as of August first of having 100 percent of their drivers biometrically cleared. A deadline for 100 percent compliance is currently set for February.

Compliance with the biometric law in Austin isn’t complete and, as such, initial data from the Austin Police Department has not shown a correlation between the frequency of sexual assaults and the new regulations. As time passes, the numbers might speak for themselves in terms of the effect biometric vetting can have on preventing ride-share related crime. In the meantime, biometrics still offer the most accurate and accountable background check results, and remain the gold standard for ensuring public safety in the workplace.


Stay posted to FindBiometrics throughout the month of September as we take a more indepth look at the world of law enforcement biometrics. Be sure to register in advance for our Law Enforcement Biometrics Month webinar, Connected Justice: The Challenges and Benefits of Biometric Law Enforcement.

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September 15, 2016 – by Peter B. Counter