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Understanding the Basics of Biometrics

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There’s little denying that today we live in a more vulnerable world. The explosion of connected devices, the growth in international travel, and the digital-age of business have made us more susceptible to increasingly sophisticated hacker attacks, while the rise in international terrorism has highlighted the need for improved security measures across the globe.

Biometrics, the practice of using biological (anatomical and physiological) or behavioral characteristics for automated recognition and verification, is gaining traction as an effective way to safeguard everything from electronics devices to airport checkpoints. More difficult to replicate or steal than passwords or passports, biometrics provides additional layers of security that could prevent data breaches, highlight identity fraud, and pinpoint known or suspected terrorists. Because of this uptick in interest, the global biometric market, valued at $7 billion in 2014, is forecast to surge to $44.2 billion in 2021, according to a report by WinterGreen Research.1

Biometrics encompasses a variety of modalities, including fingerprints, face, voice, ocular (eye), palm prints, and DNA, among others. These modalities can be quantified, automated, and difficult to reproduce compared to commonly-used biographic data such as name or address, or biographical documents such as passports, driver’s licenses, or medical records. Traditional biometrics yield fast results for identity searching while behavioral characteristics—things like gait, handwriting, and keystroke dynamics—are other useful biometrics tools (although they are learned behaviors, thus need to be analyzed over a longer period).

There is no one-size solution for the optimal biometric modality, however. Each has a specific set of strengths and weaknesses that must be considered when planning a system, based on the requirements and the application context. Certain deployments may even require multiple biometric modalities (commonly referred to as multimodal biometrics), often with fusion of the results, to ensure the highest levels of accuracy and protection.

In addition to considering budget and performance, other factors in selecting the right biometric modalities include accuracy, risk of error, user acceptance, and hygiene. For example, DNA is among the most accurate biometric modalities if the sample isn’t degraded, but the option demands proximity to the person or actual DNA sample to touch and collect it—a requirement that isn’t possible in every scenario. The costs and processing times for DNA, while coming down as technology advances, are still too high for routine verification applications. For its part, iris recognition promises good accuracy, like fingerprints, but to date, has suffered from lack of user acceptance; people sometimes struggle establishing the right distance and position in front of the sensors.

Currently, fingerprint identification is the most widely deployed biometric modality, used in industries such as healthcare and banking, and for applications like workforce identity and voter registration applications.

Financial companies are starting to move beyond fingerprints to other modalities, such as vascular biometrics, which uses vein patterns to make a match, due to higher levels of accuracy. The immigration and border control agencies of the world are moving increasingly to facial recognition for verification, especially the use of digital face pictures in ePassports. Some financial companies are also moving toward digital face pictures and/or the use of voice biometrics to verify identity of anyone calling on the phone. 

Iris recognition, considered one of the most reliable and fastest biometric identification methods, is surfacing in high-security applications such as hospital patient identification systems or access control platforms used in highly secured areas like data centers and military bases.

Companies and governments will need to do the legwork to determine which biometrics best suit their needs and applications. Yet there’s no question that biometrics technology delivers better options for today’s volatile and vulnerable global landscape.

To learn more about biometrics, click here.

1 Biometrics: Market Shares, Strategy, and Forecasts, Worldwide, 2015 to 2021; WinterGreen Research, http://www.wintergreenresearch.com/biometrics

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