Americans are well known to be protective of their civil liberties and generally place a great value on privacy. Consequently, one would assume that most U.S. citizens would react negatively to the suggestion that they provide biometric information such as fingerprints or iris images to government or private organizations as a means to identify them.

The truth is that they would welcome the idea in many circumstances.

We know this, because we asked them. Twice annually, Unisys conducts a global survey of consumer attitudes related to security, posing a series of questions on a variety of topics from cybersecurity to personal safety. We just announced the results of the latest iteration of this survey, called the Unisys Security Index, in which we spoke to approximately 12,000 consumers in 11 countries – including more than 1,000 in the United States.

Interestingly, the majority of consumers surveyed in the U.S. told us that they would be willing to provide personal information such as biometrics to enhance security using their mobile devices in a number of scenarios: at airports for security checkpoints; for conducting transactions with financial institutions; to obtain government benefits; and even to access electronic systems at work as a way to protect employer data.

At first glance this might seem surprising. In the United States, many people are somewhat uncomfortable with biometrics. After all, who would be happy about the idea of allowing the government agencies or private financial institutions they deal with to maintain a database of such highly personal data?

But in the four years we have been conducting the Unisys Security Index, we have noted that consumers take a much more nuanced and perhaps pragmatic view on the subject.

We’ve been watching international trends and recognize that consumers around the world view biometrics as valuable technologies to enhance security and protect access to systems. And that most seem confident that government and business will engineer and deploy automation systems so that consumers’ personal data will be reasonably well protected when it is contained in those systems.

The latest Unisys Security Index also showed that U.S. consumers will react strongly to theft of their personal data.

For example, 90 percent of all U.S. survey respondents said they would take action in the event of a breach of their personal data. Most said they would take relatively easy actions such as changing their passwords (87 percent). But more than three-quarters said they would take more drastic actions, such as closing their accounts on the affected site (76 percent), and more than half said they would initiate legal action against the organization responsible for the breach (53 percent).

It’s interesting to see how those responses vary globally (see chart below).

We think consumers’ tendency to be protective of their personal data in no way contradicts their positive response when asked if they would share biometric data with government agencies or other organizations.

More likely, it illustrates that consumers’ view that biometrics are a proven way to protect their personal data and to help ensure that unauthorized people cannot access it. In other words, by providing biometric data to a government or private organization, they can bolster their privacy.

It also seems to reflect a willingness on the part of consumers to view biometrics as a tool to improve their lives.

For example, nearly 60 percent of U.S. respondents in the latest Unisys Security Index said they would be willing to provide a biometric to help them get through airport security or to protect banking transactions when using a mobile device. We can assume that people view this as a way to alleviate the frustrating loss of control many people associate with the airport security process and to enhance personal convenience, as well as a way to make air travel and financial systems more secure.

Similarly, the proportion of American’s who would be willing to provide personal biometric information to enhance security to access certain types of information on their smartphone or mobile device was also relative high:

Percent of Americans willing to provide biometric information to access…

  • Financial transactions with your bank – 57%
  • Government benefits or other services – 53%
  • Your employer’s data and computer systems – 46%
  • Social media sites such as Facebook – 21%

As federal agencies implement new systems to interact with the public and empower their workforce, they can integrate user authentication technologies such as a biometrics into the design of systems early on. By doing so, they can take advantage of commercially proven models that have been deployed throughout the world on a large scale and end up with systems that have coherent, end-to-end security while also providing the convenience and the stronger authentication that the consumer will demand.

This in turn allows the government to save money by increasing the use of more convenient and more cost-effective delivery vehicles for services to the public.

Mark Cohn is chief technology officer, Unisys Federal Systems.