Safeguard-Me Blog

Biometrics: A 150 year experiment, or the saviour of safe recruitment?

Biometrics are “biological characteristics of an individual, such as face or fingerprint, which can be used to verify their identity”. (National Cyber Security Centre)
The use of biometrics and the technology that supports them are many and varied, from smartphone access gained through your thumb print and facial recognition to more sophisticated iris recognition used in airport passport control.
All sounds very “now” doesn’t it, but the use of Biometrics can be traced back further than you might think.
With ever developing technology and the seismic shift of workforce dynamics over recent years, the use of Biometric data in the recruitment cycle is becoming more frequent and refined. But with ubiquity and acceptance comes scrutiny, with many questions raised around privacy and implementation costs.
In the second of our articles on the use of technology in the safe recruitment cycle, we’ll take a look at how the adoption of biometrics are quietly becoming the norm for efficiency hungry organisations, whilst highlighting the risks and rewards associated with their use.
One of the early users of biometrics was a distant relative of mine, Sir William Herschel, son of John Herschel, who discovered Uranus amongst many other things.
William was credited with being the first person to use fingerprints in a practical manner. As early as 1858, working as a British officer in India, he started using finger and handprints on contracts of employment as a binding form of signature.
Over 150 years later the world is a very different place, with fraudsters constantly inventing new ways to cheat systems. But the unique binding characteristics of biometric data can keep us one step ahead. With a 1 in 64 billion chance of having the same fingerprint as another person (Galton, 1982), biometrics are undoubtedly more relevant in a 21st century world.
Let’s turn back the clock to 2004 and perhaps a watershed moment for safe recruitment in the UK. The Bichard Report is published, commissioned following the horrific Soham schoolgirl murders of Holly and Jessica, by caretaker Ian Huntley.
This report put pre-employment screening checks at the top of everyone’s agenda. One of Bichard’s major recommendations was that every individual who works with children should have a card or license to prove their suitability:
“New arrangements should be introduced requiring those who wish to work with children, or vulnerable adults, to be registered. This register – perhaps supported by a card or licence – would confirm that there is no known reason why an individual should not work with these client groups.”
Bichard goes on to say:
But whilst we have seen that biometric data was not a new phenomenon, its use across the recruitment sector, yet alone the wider business world, was. Still today Bichard's card or license doesn’t exist, but with huge advances in technology, biometrics and the digitalisation and automation of manual tasks, why hasn't safe recruitment joined the digital revolution?
But whilst we have seen that biometric data was not a new phenomenon, its use across the recruitment sector, yet alone the wider business world, was. Still today Bichard's card or license doesn’t exist, but with huge advances in technology, biometrics and the digitalisation and automation of manual tasks, why hasn't safe recruitment joined the digital revolution?
If we regard Lord Bichard as a visionary, and let’s agree, his ideas in the main seem a “no brainer”, why haven’t his recommendations been implemented?
Perhaps it’s the enormity of the task, to revolutionise the onboarding of millions of workers, or that his ideas were perhaps a little ahead of their time, in that the technology wasn’t as sophisticated or readily available as it is today. Or was it the mystery and scepticism that surrounded their use. Most likely a combination of all 3.
If we dig a little deeper we can assume that because DBS produces 6 million Disclosures a year, usually valid for 3 years, that the workforce requiring safe recruitment checks is around 18 million. That’s a lot of checks and a daunting overall task!
At the heart of the safe recruitment process is the ID check. This is completed, by and large, via a manual checking process, which relies on a cursory and uninformed glance at identification documents, usually a passport. This approach takes time and requires the original document to be seen by the verifier, leading to significant logistical challenges, which adds time, cost and administrative burden.
Turn your mind to that uncomfortable moment getting through airport passport control when the border officials take a long stare at your picture, then at to your face and repeat 2 or 3 times whilst you try and not look guilty of unimaginable crimes. But what exactly are they checking except for a likeness and name verification?
Technological advances made with the introduction of Machine Readable Zones (MRZs) and the use of biometric data on passports makes the check not only quicker, as it can be completed by technology, but infinitely more accurate and:
“reduces fraud, protects rights, and increases transparency; and by promoting digitization, drives efficiencies and ease of use.” (McKinsey).
And so this is why since 2022 the DBS now supports Identification Document Validation Technology (IDVT) and the considerable value it adds to the overall application process.
With 86% of the World’s population possessing a legally recognised identification and 49% of these having a digital trail, the use of digital identity, encompassing biometric data, is set to increase exponentially.
“The opportunity for value creation through digital ID is growing as technology improves, implementation costs decline, and access to smartphones and the internet increases daily.” (McKinsey)
Despite the huge benefits associated with their adoption, there is still a degree of scepticism around their use, with criticism associated with cost, data breaches and limiting privacy.  
There are always risks associated with using technology to input and record sensitive personal data. Think back just a few years to how sceptical you were about using your bank details to purchase items online. Today, we treat this as second nature.
This can be attributed not only to the ubiquity of their use, but a growing trust in the technology that underpins the transaction.
We can assume the use of biometric data in the safe recruitment process will follow a similar pattern. Their use is becoming more widespread, the technology is becoming more sophisticated, safer and cheaper which will lead to an increase in trust and an acceptance of their power to drive efficiency.
If Bichard’s vision of a “card or license” utilising biometrics was an invitation to disruptive technologists to test the limits of possibility, a challenge to investigate, build, test and measure, then that challenge has been well and truly accepted. Finally, some 18 years later we are well on the road to making that vision a reality, by revolutionising the safe recruitment cycle, which ultimately enhances the safety and welfare of all children and vulnerable adults.