Biometric technologies have been fodder for science-fiction books and television (and, increasingly, more-realistic dramas) for decades. Then Admiral James T. Kirk even accessed a secure Federation database by way of biometrics: examination of the vein pattern in his retina. But biometrics has found an increasing role in many areas of society, ranging from government applications to civilian and commercial uses. As biometric technologies approach ubiquity, questions arise surrounding privacy and whether anonymity is welcome in a brave new world where almost anything people do requires identification.
Biometrics is of growing interest in the data center and IT spaces. Companies that wish to limit access to their data centers may turn to biometrics as a more secure means compared with keys (or keycards) and passwords. Employing a fingerprint scanner or other technology adds another layer of protection that doesn’t require the presence of a security guard or an employee constantly viewing camera monitors. And as people become more heavily reliant on digital technology for everything from financial transactions to medical records to communication to doing their jobs, many are searching for a means of protecting personal data and equipment access using something more than just a password. Biometrics is thus finding their way into more mundane commercial uses, like accessing secure websites. “A biometric sensor in a laptop or tablet computer scans the unique pattern of veins in a person’s palm to verify their identity. The technology, developed by Intel, could do away with the multiple passwords most people use for websites,” notes the U.K. Telegraph (“New sensors could replace passwords with palm scanning”), for example.
Here’s a little rundown of major areas in the world of biometric technology.
- Fingerprints. Fingerprints have been used as a means of identification for a long time now, and they constitute a large portion of the biometrics market. Fingerprints have been studied extensively as a way to identify persons (living or dead) and to solve crimes. The addition of sensors and computing power enables a more refined approach to fingerprint identification. This approach to biometrics is relatively simple and unintrusive, although it generally requires physical contact with a sensor—a potentially disturbing thought if the last guy who used it has a cold and just sneezed on his hand.
- Facial recognition. This biometric technology is probably receiving the most press coverage these days. It is broader than fingerprint technology, as it doesn’t require contact with a sensor and can sweep large, relatively remote areas (whatever is in view of a camera). Facial recognition has a variety of applications, ranging from the annoying (Facebook using facial recognition, via store cameras, as a marketing tool—“Facedeals: New app uses facial recognition to ID you for discounts”) to the dangerous (governments tracking individuals without warrants). But because facial recognition can be beaten by a number of means, it has less appeal as a method of secure authentication in, say, a data center.
- Eye scans. Another unique identifier is the eye—particularly, the iris or retina. The retina has vein and artery patterns that vary from individual to individual, but scanning the retina involves shining a bright light into the eye—an uncomfortable procedure that is considered intrusive, although no physical contact may be necessary. Iris scanning is another accurate biometric approach, looking at the patterns in the colored portion of the eye. Because the iris is visible in indirect light, a camera can photograph the iris some distance away without the use of bright lights. FindBiometrics.com (“Iris Scanners & Recognition”) notes, “Iris recognition is rarely impeded by glasses or contact lenses and can be scanned from 10cm to a few meters away...The imaging process involves no lasers or bright lights and authentication is essentially non-contact. Today’s commercial iris cameras use infrared light to illuminate the iris without causing harm or discomfort to the subject.” The accuracy and nonintrusive nature of iris scanning makes it nearly ideal for authentication and similar purposes, but it is still a relatively new technology that is being refined.
- Palm scanning. As mentioned previously, palm scanning is another biometric technology under development. Similar to the retina scan, it looks at the unique pattern of veins in a person’s palm, comparing the result with a known database. Palm scanning is unobtrusive and need not require physical contact, and if developed into an accurate means of identification, it could be a close competitor with iris scans.
Other Biometric Technologies
The above-listed approaches to biometrics are just a few in a broad spectrum being either developed or deployed. The federal government is pursuing a number of different technologies in its apparent quest to know everything about everybody all the time—for instance, through the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system, which promises to store all manner of biometric information about individuals. According to the Rutherford Institute (“Smile, the Government Is Watching: Next Generation Identification [SHORT]”), “By the time it’s fully operational in 2014, NGI will serve as a vast data storehouse of ‘iris scans, photos searchable with face recognition technology, palm prints, and measures of gait and voice recordings alongside records of fingerprints, scars, and tattoos.’” Almost anything that could possibly be used to uniquely identify a person is being researched in this field; and even if it isn’t necessarily a completely unique identifier (like, say, fingerprints), just narrowing the possibilities (e.g., gait or tattoos) can still be helpful in this project.
Uses and Misuses
A number of potential uses for biometrics quickly come to mind: restricting access to data centers and other sensitive areas, identification of deceased individuals, authentication for financial or other secure transactions and so on. Because passwords have a number of practical downsides (they need to be at least somewhat complicated to be secure, they can be difficult to remember, etc.), biometrics are an appealing alternative—you always have everything you need to identify yourself. In limited scope, biometrics has beneficial applications.
But the concern over biometrics is not unfounded. One need not be a conspiracy theorist to notice the increasingly egregious overstepping of the limits of power by the federal government. Like any powerful tool, biometrics can become as much a means of tyranny as of benefit.
From a purely technical standpoint, fingerprint scanning is the most mature biometric technology. Others are following close behind. One technology on the horizon is fast DNA analysis: a device that can return a DNA identification quickly—say in seconds or minutes. According to Gartner (“Key Trends to Watch in Gartner 2012 Emerging Technologies Hype Cycle”), biometric authentication is on the “Slope of Enlightenment,” heading toward the “Plateau of Productivity,” in the company’s 2012 Emerging Technologies Hype Cycle.
As with any technology, the key to successful (meaning mostly beneficial) use of biometric technology is to carefully consider the appropriateness of its application in different areas and to remain skeptical of a rush into universal implementation. There’s a time for identification, and there’s (still) a time for anonymity.
Photo courtesy of Vince Alongi