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The Evolution of Biometrics

March 25, 2022

Most of us don’t think twice about using our fingerprint or even our face to unlock our phones. We often use biometrics to confirm our identities through various apps, through home assistants that recognize our voices, and at many large airports. But what do we know about this technology and how it is being used?

Biometric technology uses unique characteristics like physical traits, such as fingerprints or retinas, or behavioral traits, such as voice, mannerisms, or signatures to identify someone.

While there is some historical evidence of biometrics being used as far back as 500 BC, many of the origins in the field were related to measurements of physical characteristics and were unreliable. It wasn’t until fingerprinting became standardized in the late 1800s that “modern” use of biometrics was born.

With the dawn of computers, biometrics bloomed. Ink fingerprinting gave way to the digital era of fingerprinting. The first work on facial recognition began in the 1960s. The first patent for an algorithm to recognize iris patterns was issued in 1991.

In 2007, the National Science & Technology Council (NSTC) released the NSTC Policy for Enabling the Development, Adoption and Use of Biometric Standards to encourage interoperability across biometrics systems.

Apple, Google, PayPal, Disney, and American Airlines are just some of the large corporations taking advantage of biometric technology. As with many technologies, there are both pros and cons to biometrics.

The primary benefit of biometric technology is that it is extremely difficult to fake or steal someone’s physical attributes, as opposed to a PIN or social security number, states Andrew Zarkowsky for The Hartford.

Biometrics make it easier to access devices, such as a phone, by simply holding it up to your face or quickly pressing a finger on a screen. When used on devices such as laptops, it saves the user from having to remember (or write down) complex passwords.

At resorts like Disney, if a guest chooses to participate in optional fingerprinting, they can hop from park to park with a simple scan and preventing the use of fraudulent tickets. Facial recognition is used in places like airports to help identify potential security risks.

On the flip side, using biometrics means you are leaving a literal fingerprint each time you scan, which raises obvious security concerns. If a fingerprint is scanned, it is stored in a biometric database, and like any online system, that means it’s open to hacking.

As Zarkowsky states, “A person can always change a password, but not their fingerprints and eyes.”

Additionally, there is a risk that the companies obtaining biometrics are selling or sharing a person’s data to other organizations, leading to less control over the personal information.

As biometric data is frequently used in security efforts by police departments and other agencies, there is always the possibility that someone’s biometrics are being tracked without their knowledge, especially in terms of facial recognition.

While NSTC has established policies for biometrics, there is no legislation to date enforcing how biometric data is collected, stored, and used.

The use of biometrics involves carefully monitoring both sides of the equation. While they can greatly improve security the risk may not be worth the use if the resulting biometric data is not secured thoroughly.

As usage expands in the future, this will become a greater concern for both the developers and users of biometric technology.

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Additional Sources:

1. Tracing the History of Biometrics, https://www.govtech.com/public-safety/tracing-the-history-of-biometrics.html

2. John G. Daugman, https://www.invent.org/inductees/john-g-daugman

3. Biometric personal identification system based on iris analysis, https://patents.google.com/patent/US5291560A/en

4. The Secret History of Facial Recognition, https://www.wired.com/story/secret-history-facial-recognition