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Biometrics: The Future and Reality Facing Us All

Biometrics: The Future and Reality Facing Us All

Tom Gerencer
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Biometrics is an increasingly important topic in our work and private lives. There’s a lot of high-level talk about biometrics in the media, but we’ll stick to the basics. Let’s leave the jargon and deeper philosophy behind and get a straightforward introduction to this exciting tech, including fingerprint, face, and voice biometrics. Read on to find out how they work and how they can make your life easier and safer in the near future.
As with any new technology, biometrics will have a major impact on how we work, live, and play in dozens of as yet undreamt-of ways. But what is biometrics? Is it safe? And how will you use it in your daily life?

What is biometrics?

Biometrics is the use of traits like fingerprints, palm prints, or voice prints for identification purposes. Biometrics identify a person digitally to grant access to an app, location, service, system, or data. They’re increasingly popular, but they aren’t without their issues in security, privacy, and effectiveness.

How do biometrics work?

Like snowflakes, no two human beings are exactly alike. Even identical twins have different fingerprints, palm veins, ear-canal shapes, and other traits. That’s why image and voice biometrics examples work to identify individuals.
Biometrics use sensors like touch screens or infrared cameras to capture and store these patterns, then check them at a later date to verify ID. It works just like a security guard checking a driver’s license photo against a human face. Biometrics use these identity checks to allow access to computer systems, software, or locations.

How will I use biometrics?

Biometrics probably won’t replace passwords, at least not entirely. But they’ll definitely help with security. Soon, you’ll use fingerprint or voice biometrics to log into all those secondary accounts that don’t need high security. Think of things like your Audible account, local library, or Pandora. Biometrics can help eliminate a lot of passwords and the struggle of remembering them all.
For more sensitive accounts like banking and online shopping, biometrics plus a PIN will be the most secure option. Why? Because biometrics - though more secure - can still be hacked. As we all know from the movies, a wax fingerprint or a dummy data file with your fingerprint data in it are hard to create and use, but they’re still possible.

Types of biometrics

If you own an iPhone or Android phone with a fingerprint scanner or face recognition, you’ve already used biometrics. Some personal computers, like the HP ENVY laptop, also come with built-in fingerprint readers for added security and ease of use.
Because biometrics are an easier, safer way to verify ID, they’re popping up across the globe in dozens of applications. What are the most common biometrics examples in use today?

1. Fingerprint scanners

These are the most well-known biometrics in regular use. The most common are on smartphones, but you can also find them on some laptops and in physical locations like workplace doors and keyless home locks. Most fingerprint biometrics use the same electric “capacitance” that makes our touch screens work.

2. Face recognition

If you’ve got a newer phone like an iPhone X or Samsung Galaxy Note 8, you’ve probably used (and maybe struggled with) facial recognition. It works by creating a detailed image-map of your face, often with both visual and infrared light. Some users complain this biometric can shut them out when they put on glasses or just after they wake up.

3. Palm vein scanning

This is one of the most exciting new biometrics because of its low failure rates [1]. Unlike palm print recognition, palm vein recognition is contactless. It’s also far more difficult to fool because we don’t leave palm vein prints lying around when we touch a drinking glass or doorknob.

4. Eye scans

There are two types of biometric eye scans: retina and iris. An iris scan takes a picture of the visible part of your eye - what you see in the mirror. Retinal scans create an infrared image of the veins inside the eye. Like palm vein scans, these biometrics are very accurate and difficult to “spoof.”

5. Ear scan

Wearing earphones? Believe it or not, they can tell if you’re you. In 2016, IT firm NEC developed a new biometric that works by bouncing sound waves dolphin-style off your inner-ear cavity and then measuring the shape of the echo. The tech works in a fraction of a second and is 99% accurate [2].

6. Voice biometrics

If you’ve seen the 1986 Jeff Goldblum film The Fly, or Robert Redford in Sneakers, you’ve seen voice biometrics. Voice biometrics analyze the unique sound patterns in a user’s voice. In The Fly, as Goldblum changes, his voice does too, locking him out of his computer. Real voice biometrics can fall prey to false negatives like this as we age.

7. DNA, EEG, ECG

Once a tool for law enforcement, DNA isn’t just the property of CSI units anymore. New, portable DNA scanners can identify an individual with 99.9% accuracy [3]. Other cutting edge biometrics include EEG and ECG scans, which read electrical patterns in our hearts and brains to judge our bona fides.

8. Behavioral biometrics

“I could tell it was him by the way he walked.” If you’ve ever said that, you understand behavioral biometrics. Unlike traditional fingerprint scans or voice biometrics, behavioral biometrics don’t rely on hard physical traits like skin ridges or larynx-shape.
Instead, behavior biometrics record and compare the way we walk, type, or sign our names. This new approach is often used hand-in-glove with other biometrics because it’s not as dependable. So far it’s most often used to tell the difference between a human and a robot.
Here are a few types of biometrics that use behavior to ID you.
  • Signature: Our signatures are one of the oldest biometrics on record, predating computers, TV, and maybe even paper. Signature biometric systems analyze the shape of a written signature or even a video of the writing process
  • Typing patterns: How long do you pause every time you have to type a 9 or an F? Typing-pattern biometrics plot the time it takes to switch from one key to the next. With special keyboards, they can also track the force behind each keystroke
  • Navigation patterns: The way you move a mouse or use your finger on a touch screen can give you away. Navigation pattern biometrics don’t need special scanners or equipment. They’re 100% software-based
  • Physical movements: Your gait can identify you, and not just to other people. Some airports are already gearing up to scan crowds for threats by looking at the way we walk [4]
  • Engagement patterns: How you open an app or hold your phone creates a pattern that’s unique to you. Want to prove you’re you and not a bot that’s stolen your identity? Engagement-pattern biometrics may start subtly checking in the background

Examples of biometrics

Biometrics are already making our world a safer - if less private - place. Several types of biometrics examples are all around us every day. We may use them to unlock a phone, sign into a banking app, or even get into our homes or start our cars without a key.
The use of face scans, fingerprints, and voice biometrics is ramping up. In the near future, we’ll use them to diagnose diseases, stop ATM theft, thwart retail crime, and blow the whistle on threats in schools or government agencies. Someday soon you’ll even pay for your groceries without a register - just by walking from the store. Here are a few examples of biometrics in action.

1. Secure bank transactions

Got a smartphone? Got a bank account? Most banks let you make transactions with the fingerprint scanner on your phone or laptop

2. Ditching passwords

Phones and some laptops like the HP ProBook use fingerprint scanners to log you into apps and sites securely

3. Convenient online shopping

Tired of typing in long strings of numbers, letters, and special characters to buy online? Biometrics can put you in the fast lane

4. Breezy in-store shopping

Some grocery stores are already experimenting with using fingerprint scans for faster checkout [5]

5. Accessing schools or offices

Face scans, retina scans, and voice biometrics are just some of the biometrics in use in many workplaces

6. Airport security

The TSA is testing fingerprint scanners and facial recognition software in its quest to speed up clearance and improve security [6]

7. ATMs

Worried about card skimmers? Banks are, too. Some are testing fingerprint and facial recognition biometrics with their ATMs [7]

8. Credit cards

New credit cards are coming with built-in, self-charging fingerprint scanners to stop fraudsters in their tracks [8]

9. Keyless entry

Could you start your car or open your front door one day without a key? Yes, and “one day” is now, with aftermarket fingerprint add-ons [9,10]

10. Tracking pets and children

Police in India found 3,000 missing children days after starting a face-tracking system. The tech could find lost pets, too [11]

11. Stopping retail crime

Thinking of shoplifting? Think again. Stores are using facial recognition tech to flag and monitor known shoplifters

12. “Smart” advertising

You probably don’t love it when Facebook shows ads for things you Googled yesterday. Get ready for in-store displays to do it too [12]

13. Better schools

Soon, schools may use biometrics like facial recognition to flag drug dealers or dangerous visitors, and to track attendance [13]

14. Healthcare

New tech uses facial recognition to detect some diseases, including a rare genetic disorder that once required an expensive DNA test [14]

Are biometrics safe?

Is big brother watching you? Looking under your skin? Maybe even scarier, can some types of biometrics be hacked or stolen? Can crooks pilfer our fingerprints and faces, locking us out of bank accounts or offices for good?
Nothing’s perfect and biometrics are no exception. They’re not 100% effective. Like any lock, they can be broken, and there are privacy concerns. But they offer the highest level of security today, and they don’t invade our privacy much more than many other forms of ID. Driver’s licenses and passports already use biometric data like height, weight, and eye color.

Do biometrics violate our privacy?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is closely watching all the different types of biometrics. They’ve raised dozens of concerns and filed lawsuits against state governments, the TSA, and private companies like Six Flags and Facebook over biometrics. They argue that biometric data should never be collected without a citizen’s consent.
Using a fingerprint scanner in your personal life to get into a bank account or online shopping app is different. Like a passport, a fingerprint or facial recognition scan can be stolen and misused. However, also like a passport, these biometrics examples contain unique identifiers that provide a reliable way to prove we’re us.

Can biometrics be hacked?

Thieves and honest folk have been in a lock-vs-lockpick arms race since the first house was built over 11,000 years ago [15]. As soon as we invent a new way to keep out the criminals, they find a new way to get in. Every kind of biometric has been hacked, from wax fingers that fool fingerprint scans to stolen copies of palm vein data that pretend to be the real McCoy.
Worse, unlike a password, you can’t change your fingerprints if someone steals them. Still, biometrics are the most secure form of ID yet. As long as the fingerprint or retina scan is collected during sign in, the tech works. The safest method combines different types of biometrics (voice biometrics plus a face scan) with a PIN or password you can change [16].

Will biometrics lock us out?

Few things are more frustrating than being locked out by our own security, and no biometric is effective 100% of the time. Still, most biometrics work 99% of the time or more. Yet we’ve all been locked out of a phone at least temporarily by a faulty face scan or fingerprint scan.
As we age, the risk increases. Fingerprints, faces, and even irises can all change over time. Using more than one trait, like a face and ear scan, can slash the risk of being locked out. As one trait changes, the others take up the slack. The biometrics of the future will almost certainly rely on several features at once [17].

Are biometrics here to stay?

Don’t ditch your passwords just yet. Using a mix of biometrics and a PIN is safer than an either/or approach. For now, biometrics users can breathe a sigh of relief and leave the massive file of long, complicated passwords by the wayside.
Like driver’s licenses, biometrics examples will certainly stay with us for a long time. They’re a unique way to prove we’re us. That makes them a handy tool to unlock everything from bank accounts to online shopping to healthcare and government info - and keep out prying eyes.

Biometrics: the bottom line

Love them or hate them, biometrics are the new normal. They store personal traits from fingerprint or retinal scans, then use that data to grant secure access to online accounts, apps, and even physical locations. Much more difficult to hack than passwords, they’ll become a powerful security tool in years to come.
  1. Identity Tech Solutions; Palm Vein Recognition
  2. NEC; NEC develops biometrics technology that uses sound to distinguish individually unique ear cavity shape
  3. ELifeSciences; Rapid re-identification of human samples using portable DNA sequencing
  4. The Economist; How airports use biometric technology
  5. Secure ID News; Biometric payments expanding to grocery and convenience stores
  6. TSA.gov; TSA Biometrics Roadmap
  7. Finextra; CaixaBank rolls out facial recognition at the ATM
  8. Visa; Fingerprint authentication moves from phones to payment cards
  9. Gadget Review; Fingerprint Car Starter
  10. United Locksmith; 8 Best Fingerprint Door Locks That Enhance Your Security
  11. The Independent; Indian Police Trace 3,000 Missing Children in Just Four Days Using Facial Recognition Technology
  12. The Drum; Are biometrics the next frontier for advertising?
  13. Face Six; Face Six Homepage
  14. Genome.gov; Facial recognition software helps diagnose rare genetic disease
  15. National Geographic Traveler; 9 Ancient Sites That Will Totally Inspire You
  16. Cornell University; Something You Know, Have, or Are
  17. IEEE.org; Multimodal biometrics: An overview
About the Author: Tom Gerencer is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Tom is an ASJA journalist, career expert at Zety.com, and a regular contributor to Boys' Life and Scouting magazines. His work is featured in Costco Connection, FastCompany, and many more.

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