Is your fingerprint part of you?

In a report expressing concern about the increasing use of
biometric information to protect security and privacy, the Irish Council for
Bioethics (ICB) claimed earlier this month that “an individual’s biometric
information is an intrinsic element of that person”. Such claims are quite
commonly made in relation to genetic information, though the ICB’s extension of
the concept to other forms of biological information, such as that acquired from
fingerprinting, voice recognition software, and gait analysis, may be novel.

The claim that biometric information is an ‘intrinsic element of
the person’ seems designed to invoke powerful intuitions about our ownership of
our own body parts: we own our biological information just like we own our
kidneys. Indeed, the ICB go on to say that “the right to bodily integrity…. should
apply not only to an individual’s body, but also to any information derived
from the body, including his/her biometric information”. But both the
metaphysical claim that biometric information is an intrinsic element of the
person,and the moral claim that it is covered by rights to bodily integrity
are highly problematic.

On the metaphysical point, it’s just not clear that information is the right sort of thing
to count as part of a person. On most accounts, a person is composed of a mind,
a body, or some combination of the two. But information about the body is
neither part of the body or the brain. Moreover, the suggestion that biological
information is part of the person has some problematic implications. For
example, it seems to imply that when someone looks at you and registers your
height, body shape, and eye colour, they thereby acquire some part of you.   

The claim that we have rights over our biological information like
those we have over our physical body parts is perhaps less obviously false. It
does seem to be in principle possible to have moral claims, perhaps amounting
to rights, over information. Arguably, authors have a some form of ownership
right over the information that comprises their writings. It’s also very plausible
that we have some sort of claim to determine what gets down with our biometric
information, given that it could easily be used in ways that harm us. But do
these claims amount to powerful rights akin to those we have over our physical
body parts? There are some significant disanalogies between body parts and
biometric information that should be perhaps give us reasons to be doubtful. For
example, body parts are typically rivalrous
in use: either you can use my kidney, or I can use it – but we can’t both
use it. Biometric information is typically non-rivalrous: you can use my
biometric information without preventing me from also doing so. Retention of
our body parts is also often a necessary
for our continued wellbeing, whereas retention of our biometric
information is typically not. If someone acquires a video recording of my gait,
this may harm me, but it need not – whether it harms me will depend on how it
gets used. Restriction of the ways in which biometric information can be used
may thus obviate the need for any general ownership right over such

In any case, if we have a right, akin to an ownership right, over
our biometric information, this cannot be derived from the claim that this
information is part of our persons, because there are good reasons to think
that claim is false. It will have to be defended on independent grounds.

It might be thought that there’s little to lose from giving too
much weight to a person’s moral claims over their biometric information. Better,
perhaps, to err on the side of too much weight than too little. However, as the
ICB acknowledges, biometric information can be useful in protecting personal
information that is arguably of much greater moral significance than the
contours of our fingerprints and how we walk and talk: for example, information
about our bank accounts (and how to access them) and our relationship status. In
fact, at several points in their report, the Council seem to recognise that the
benefits of collecting biometric information will sometimes outweigh the moral
costs. At such points they sensibly focus on how to prevent the misuse of biometric information, to
ensure that it is used more for good than for harm. It’s surprising, then, that
they should risk overstating the significance of rights of biometric
information by claiming that they are akin to rights over physical body parts.


Irish Council for Bioethics, Biometrics: Enhancing Security or Invading PrivacyOpinion (Dublin: 4 November 2009).

Jared Yee, 'Biometrics Sparks Privacy Fears in Ireland', Bioedge (14 November 2009).

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5 Responses to Is your fingerprint part of you?

  • Simon M says:

    Should we have any more rights over our biometric info than our general image? I don’t think there are any grounds to be be treated any differently than other personal information.

  • Tom Douglas says:

    I think this probably just depends on whether there’s greater potential for biometric information to be misued than for other informaiton (for example, photographs). Maybe for some kinds of biometric information there is, but it will obviously depend on the particular type of information and the political context.

  • SimonJM says:

    What rights do we have over our general medical records? Would it not be similar to this?

  • Tom Douglas says:

    I don’t think so. Information in medical records is normally acquired on the understanding that it will remain confidential. I’m not sure that’s true of biometric information. I suspect biometric information is more closely analogous to, for example, photographs taken of us without our knowledge. We have some claim to determine what is done with such information, but not, it seems to me, the same claims as we have over our body parts.

  • Simon says:

    Point taken. But instead of a photograph taken without our knowldge it may just be a social opt-in circumstance where if you wish to use a particular government/social service like a driving licence you will have to be prepared to submit biometric information. You have a choice not to be photographed to have a drivers licence but that choice means not being able to drive.


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