Inside the rise of biometrics security

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In the Star Trek universe, payments and identification are done through biometrics, the measurement of unique physical characteristics, such as fingerprints and facial features, for verifying identity with a high level of certainty. Customers pay for purchases at Quark’s bar on Deep Space Nine with a thumbprint, while Picard sets the Enterprise’s auto-destruct sequence with a voice command (“Picard Delta 5, or Picard Epsilon 793”).

Those sci-fi scenes are quickly becoming a reality.

Recently, Qualcomm Technologies announced a new and improved fingerprint scanner that can scan through sweat, lotion, and condensation. Their Snapdragon Sense ID scanner captures “three-dimensional acoustical detail within the outer layers of the skin” and works well through glass, aluminum, stainless steel, sapphire, and various plastics, making it a good option for placement on a variety of devices.

While this is interesting from a technological point of view, what about the privacy implications of all this biometric use? Will a single fingerprint scan unlock all of a person’s personal data?

In most countries, only the information that’s necessary for the particular biometric usage is collected at that time. For example, a fingerprint or iris scan done for the Citizenship and Immigration Canada department of the Canadian federal government is only used to identify a person’s name, date of birth, and place of birth. That information is only used to prevent identity theft, resolve errors that may happen if a person’s information is similar to that of someone else, and also to facilitate re-entry into the country.

We’ve even see attraction sites jump on the trend: Disney World in Florida takes an image of your finger and uses that instead of a ticket.

Advantages of biometric security

  • Users save time on identification activities when using a biometric scan. Whether you’re at the airport, going in to the office at work, or unlocking your cell phone, users save time. No more fumbling with keys or passwords; a quick scan and they’re off.
  • Decreased chances of fraud. Owners of biometric devices enjoy a higher level of security and lower instances of fraud because of biometrics. Depending on the particular biometric being used, it is quite difficult to duplicate the type of scan, which means their assets are better protected.
  • It’s becoming more accepted in society, so users are more willing to use it. Data security is also getting stronger, further putting users at ease.
  • Eliminates the need to remember multiple passwords. Today we have so many passwords to remember for so many systems that users welcome the chance to eliminate them from daily use.

Disadvantages of biometric security

  • Creation and storage of certain kinds of biometric data (like voice prints) is costly.
  • Scanning devices can be expensive. For example, iris scanners or voiceprint recognition systems.
  • Failure rates for biometric scans can be high due to the fine detail inherent in the biometric being scanned. Iris scanning is a relatively new technology, and often means users have to undergo multiple initial scans to record their irises properly.
  • Privacy laws are different in every country, so it may be difficult to implement a standard biometric scanning program.
  • Not all biometric scanning methods are good for every industry. Fingerprint scanners aren’t very good for industrial workplaces, while proximity storage devices (like the Nymi band) can be cumbersome for any workplace as they force the user to wear the device in order to be used.
  • Some scan types are seen as invasive. Users may feel that a retinal/iris scan or ECG is more invasive than a simple fingerprint scan, and so may be hesitant to do it. Additionally, we’ve all seen too many movies where a villain forcibly removes a body part to defeat a biometric scanner, and while the chances of that happening to them is remote, users are still afraid of it.

Who’s using biometric security right now?

Many mobile devices like laptops and smartphones employ biometric security, namely a face-print or fingerprint. Yet that’s only scratching the surface of industries using it. Here’s a quick list of the industries/markets currently experimenting with biometrics:

Government

In Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada uses it for certain entry programs, while the U.S. harnesses it in their Global Entry program.

Retail (and anywhere time clocks are used)

Anyone that’s worked a job where they had to punch a clock may be familiar with a biometric scanner. They’re used in various locations to eliminate buddy punching, reduce payroll inflation and error rates, ensure compliance with time and attendance labour laws, and more. They have also been used to curb theft, by identifying known shoplifters.

Finance & Banking

Several large banks around the world have been experimenting with retinal scanners at ATM/ABMs, to allow customers quicker access to their money. We also previously reported on Royal Bank soon to test a wristband called Nymi that will identify a banker based on his/her heartbeat. And in 2008, Cairo Amman Bank became the first bank in the world to launch IrisGuard and installed iris recognition systems at branches and ATM locations in Palestine and Jordan, according to media reports.

The biometrics wristband known as Nymi
The biometrics wristband known as Nymi

Healthcare

Medical facilities are starting to use biometric scanners for patients. We’re all familiar with the barcode on a hospital ID bracelet, right? Those are being replaced by biometric scanners to help medical staff identify patients, access historical medical records, and more.

How about your business? Are you using biometrics? If so, let us know in the comments section below

Photo via Flickr, Creative Commons

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Julia Borgini

Julia Borgini

Julia Borgini is a technology writer, copywriter and consultant for B2B technology companies. She helps them connect with people and grow their business with helpful content and copy. Visit her website to see who she’s helping today: www.spacebarpress.com
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