More than two Millennia later, the Motorola Atrix launched with the world’s first fingerprint sensor. Thanks to state of the art technology the phone could save and verify biometric data, enabling the phone’s owner to unlock the device simply by placing her thumb on the appropriate area.
Since then, different forms of biometric identification have crept into our lives and have become far more sophisticated. Fingerprints, facial recognition and iris recognition are just some of the ways with which we can identify ourselves using cutting edge technology.
That being said, Biometric verifications are employed not just by corporations trying to sell products, but also by Governments aiming to track and monitor their citizens. It’s an incredibly powerful tool that can be used both to enhance and reduce our quality of life.
Let’s find out more.
What does “Biometric” mean?
Before we look into the different forms of biometric identification and discuss their security implications, we should be clear on what the term “biometric” means.
“Biometric” derives from the Greek words “bio” meaning “life” and “metric” meaning “measurement.” In brief it refers to the measurement and analysis of an individual’s unique physical characteristics.
Some of these characteristics are DNA, fingerprints, retina patterns, hand geometry, earlobe geometry, iris patterns, and your voice. These are hard or even impossible to fake meaning that biometric technology is often used to identify individuals and manage access control.
How Does Biometric Identification Work?
We previously discussed the great variety of use cases, and each employs the technology in slightly different ways. In general, identification requires two sides, one involving the nature of the Biometric characteristic, and the other is the device which tracks and verifies its authenticity. Jain, Bolle and Pankanti released a groundbreaking paper in 1999 entitled: “Biometrics Personal Identification in Networked Society”. Here the authors lay out seven factors which they believe identify a suitable Biometric characteristic:
- Universality — An overwhelming percentage of the population needs to have this characteristic (fingerprint for example)
- Uniqueness — The likelihood of sharing an identical Biometric data point with another person needs to be impossibly small.
- Permanence — It must be robust and not easily changed.
- Measurability — The characteristic must be convertible to a machine readable data point.
- Performance — It’s unaffected by external conditions and is predictably measurable.
- Acceptability — Devices, whether clay tablets or cutting edge mobile phones, must be able to authenticate the data point.
- Circumvention — Creating forgeries must be so complex as to be prohibitive.
Biometric characteristics, like fingerprints and retinas, fulfil these seven characteristics, making them suitable for identification.
On the flipside, we also need technology that fulfils certain standards in order to authentic reliably. These are:
- Reading or scaning at least one Biometric characteristic
- Comparing the biometric data to previously collected information in order to establish a match.
- Storing the data securely on a database for future comparisons
Once you have a Biometric characteristic that fulfils the seven requirements outlined above, and can authenticate it with the technology listed previously, you can begin Biometric identification.
What Forms Of Identification Are There?
Biometric Identification entered into mainstream consciousness with the introduction of fingerprint readers on flagship mobile phones. Today, millions of individuals use their Biometric data to unlock mobile devices, causing some commentators to hail the end of regular passwords.
Whether Biometric identification will become the industry standard is yet to be seen, but it’s worth thinking about the different forms that already exist and how they are already impacting our lives. Let’s take a closer look:
Fingerprints are the oldest form of Biometric identification and by far the most widely used. They are unique to the individual and comprise ridges on the human finger. These typically produce shapes which, when covered in ink or read by a sensor, form a unique impression which can be used to identify the individual.
In its modern iteration the technology relies on an initial set-up process in which the correct fingerprint is saved. Whenever the device or account is asked to unlock, the in-built fingerprint reader will scan the impression and compare it to the appropriate entry in its database. The fingerprint matches the device is unlocked, whereas a failed match will return an error.
Although this approach is increasingly incorporated in 21st century technology, it is far from perfect. We use our hands and fingers for all manner of tasks, often causing dirt or water to change the impression and result in an error.
Additionally, genetic conditions like Adermatoglyphia result in the absence of fingerprints, making this form of identification impossible. Nevertheless, Fingerprints are among the most reliable and widely used form of Biometric identification.