Interview with Alexandra Runnion, undergraduate research fellow at SIMLab

This summer, Loyola School of Communication undergraduate research assistant Alexandra Runnion explores the growing field of biometric identity technologies, and their broader implication on our modern lives. Alexandra works at Loyola’s SIMLab under the supervision of Dr. Florence Chee. For her project, she looks at the way technology companies and our governments gather this kind of data, and how these datasets are then used. She seeks to elaborate on the use, usefulness and possible dangers of the rise of biometrics in the modern world of identity technologies.

The CTSDH’s summer fellow Sebastian Wuepper sat down with her to talk about her project.

You work at SIMLab, can you please explain what SIMLab is, and what you are doing there?

The SIMLab or Social Interaction and Media Lab is a research lab with Loyola university Chicago’s School of Communication. The lab is headed by Dr. Florence Chee who guides students through research projects while working on her own. Although the lab is a recent addition to the School of Communication, we have plans to connect with other labs in Chicago and the world to expand the research community.

My first brush with the lab came during an introductory SoC seminar last fall. Dr. Chee spoke with us about the Lab and I was immediately interested. After reaching out to Dr. Chee I began going to regular meetings and then developed the current SIMLab logos. In the spring of this year my role in the lab branched off into o research as I developed an abstract for the Provost Fellowship. 

How did your work at SIMLab get you interested in this project?

My initial role in the SIMLab was the creation of logos and promotional material for upcoming events. As I spent more time with Dr. Chee and the students working on projects for her, I grew more interested in what Dr. Chee calls “research culture”. There are so many fascinating challenges and questions in our digital age. I wanted to join the conversation. In the spring with my Provost Fellowship Award, I received the chance to add my voice to the discussion.

What got you interested in working on a project on biometrics?

As the Provost deadline loomed, Dr. Chee and I met several times to bounce ideas off each other. One day we were discussing advertising in gaming when almost out of nowhere the topic of biometrics was brought up by her. She began talking about all of the new technologies being developed and how these technologies were slowly being implemented into our everyday lives. This topic stuck with us because of its vast implications. Since it is so new, there are so many questions about how it will be used in years to come.

What is your stance on biometrics in everyday life? Do you, for example, use a fingerprint scanner to unlock your phone?

I loved having an iPhone 5s complete with fingerprint scanner. It was so easy to just touch your phone without even looking. Unfortunately, I broke my phone and downgraded to the 5c. I get annoyed every time my phone buzzes to tell me I mistyped a digit in my passcode.

However, there are times when fingerprint data has given me pause. For example, this summer I am interning for a Wealth Management company. In order to have a work email and server access, I needed to have my fingerprints collected and on file. I understood that I had to do this because I was interning for a company dealing with finances. What interested me was how these fingerprint tests were conducted. I had a few options of places to take the prints. When I had them taken I was not at a police station so I asked the proprietor where the print were going. She said they went to a “third party” and then to the FBI. I think this example illustrates what I want to delve into with my research.  

What do you hope the outcome of your project to be?

I hope to illuminate possible unethical practices in biometrics, particularly fingerprint data.

What do you think about collecting biometric data for traveling purposes? The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that collects fingerprints from all who enter. Do you think that is a good thing?

I think that proper identification during travel is crucial. Biometric data provides the highest security because it directly identifies the individual traveling. Biometrics replaces passport and IDs which can be falsified. There are not many ways to falsify biometric data.

What is the most surprising discovery of this project so far? What do you find the most challenging?

In my early stages of research, I have have been reading up on what is called “big data”. One article discusses how the US government is constantly collecting huge amounts of data via surveillance around the world and here [in the US]. The paper called this massive amount of information “big data”. The government keeps all of this data on file because they do not know when or if something will be useful until it is useful. In order to store all of this data the government will use third party companies to store it for them. This relates to my own experience of having my fingerprints taken. The government cannot provide all of the room to house such large amounts of data so they turn to others to fill in the gaps. Its transactions like these that I am interested in researching.

Where do you see the biggest problems arising from massive creation of biometrical data from a large part of the population?

Most people would not mind the government watching and storing data on them. When I asked my mother about how she felt about her biometric data being stored, she said that she’s not a criminal and does not plan on being one so she doesn’t mind the government watching or taking biometric data. What I did not know and what surprised me was that it is not just the government [that collects] this kind of information. The third party technology that scanned my fingerprints also has my social security number. This is where I see potential issues in the mass creation of biometric data. I want to know how these third party organizations with access to people’s biometric data and sensitive information like social securities work.

Alexandra's project will be published on the online presence of SIMLab Chicago - The Social & Interactive Media Lab of Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication.