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How biometrics work

We’ve talked in-depth about the different types of biometrics, from facial recognition to fingerprint recognition, iris recognition to voice recognition, however, with the increased adoption of biometrics within our everyday lives, we wanted to take a closer look at how biometrics work.

Biometrics were once reserved for the big screen and the world of science fiction. We can go back as far as the early 70s when we first started to see biometrics in the movies. The original Blade Runner movie, released in 1982 was one of the first to feature iris recognition. James Bond movies over the past four decades have also featured many biometric technologies that seemed like they would only ever belong on the big screen rather than in real life.

Jump forward 40 years and some of those technologies actually seem antiquated.

What we are seeing today is far more sophisticated versions of these sci-fi technologies. Thankfully, it’s not quite as easy as stabbing someone’s eye out with a pen (Demolition Man, 1993) to gain iris recognition access or creating a silicone hand to fool a fingerprint recognition scanner and save the world.

The use of biometrics in 2021 and beyond

Today, it’s a rare day when we don’t interact with one form of biometric technology. From unlocking your phone to finding out the weather before you leave for work to securely boarding a flight – biometric technology is all around us and providing practical and secure solutions that make our lives easier and also help to improve the user experience in many different situations.

Here are some of the most common uses of biometric technology in our everyday lives:

1.      Airport Security

Biometric technology has been present in airports for some time. Making the traveller’s journey through airports more seamless is a goal shared by airports around the world.

Verifying passenger identity using biometric technology has been used in major airports around the world for several years and the use of the technology is now becoming widespread.

Delta Air Lines, in partnership with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Transportation Security Administration and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, launched the first curb-to-gate biometric terminal in the U.S. at Atlanta’s Terminal F.

Travellers flying to an international destination on Delta or its partner airlines can now choose to use face recognition technology to check-in at the self-service kiosks, drop bags at the check-in counters, move through the TSA checkpoint and board a flight at any gate on Concourse F.

This new option leverages NEC’s NeoFace Express, allowing rapid identification and real-time screening of passengers, making travel through the airport easier. Airports are one of the largest adopters of biometric security systems and it is expected that similar systems will be rolled out across a much broader range of industries.

2.      Mobile Access and Authentication

Perhaps one of the most common uses of biometric technology is smartphone security. Apple were the first to introduce the Touch ID solution – using fingerprint recognition technology – and since then, mobile phone security has evolved to utilise a number of biometric technologies including facial recognition, iris recognition and voice recognition.

All new mobile phones are now integrating some form of biometric modality as a way of securing your device or specific applications such as banking apps and it is expected that biometrics will be used alongside traditional password and PIN options as a form of two-factor authentication.

3.      Home Assistants

Anyone who is familiar with Google Home, Alexa and Siri will already be accustomed to using voice recognition as a biometric identifier. Google Assistant that powers Google Home as well as the assistant on Android devices is compatible with a wide range of IoT (Internet of Things) devices including light bulbs, door locks, security cameras, security lights and more.

Of course, when linking your home assistant with any of these connectable devices, security is imperative. You wouldn’t want them controlled by just anyone. That’s why Google Assistant’s ability to recognise the voice of authorised users is critical.

There are of course many other practical applications of biometric technologies. More and more businesses are turning to biometrics for their access and authentication requirements. Fingerprint recognition is the most widely utilised biometric used for accessing buildings and it provides an extra layer of security for building managers.

As we move through 2021 and beyond, we can expect to see an even greater reliance on biometrics, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and a move to a more contactless society.

How do biometrics actually work?

Instead of using something you have (such as a key) or something you know (such as a password), biometrics use who you “are” to identify you.

Biometrics can use physical characteristics, such as your face, fingerprints, irises, veins, or behavioural characteristics like your voice, handwriting, mouse movements or typing rhythm.

Unlike keys and passwords, your personal traits are extremely difficult to lose or forget. They are also very difficult to copy. For this reason, many people consider them to be safer and more secure than keys or passwords.

Biometric systems all use the same three steps:

  • Enrolment

The first time you use a biometric system, it must record basic information about you which might include your name, staff number etc. It then captures an image or recording of your specific trait which can be matched to your identification.

  • Storage

Once recorded, your biometric data is then stored, however, contrary to popular belief, a system doesn’t simply store an image of your face or fingerprint. What is created and stored is the ‘biometric’ – a proprietary, mathematical interpretation of the subject’s face, fingerprint, iris etc. Any original image is then discarded, and the ‘template’ is stored. This is proprietary to the biometric system in place, and it cannot be ‘read’ by other systems.

  • Comparison

Once your biometric template has been stored on the system, the next time you use the system, it compares your trait to the stored template and then accepts or rejects that you are who you say you are.

Are biometrics secure?

One of the biggest barriers to the mainstream adoption of biometrics has been the misinformation about the secure storage of biometric data.

As already discussed, a common misconception is that biometric systems simply store a digital image of your face, iris, fingerprint or other biometric identifier and that these databases can be easily hacked and your biometric lost forever. This is simply not true.

Take facial recognition as an example:

  • When you create a facial recognition template from a face, whether this is in real-time, in person or using a photograph, the biometric is not the image or the photo. Also, it is NOT the facial image or photo that is stored.
  • What is created (i.e. the “biometric”) is actually a proprietary, mathematical interpretation of the subject’s face and any original picture or video is discarded and is not stored. This mathematical interpretation is called the facial “template”. This facial template is proprietary to the facial recognition solution provider.
  • It is impossible to interpret or even read this template without the vendor’s secret, proprietary algorithm to decode it. Even the algorithm of a different facial recognition vendor cannot read it.
  • Lastly, even when the template is decoded using this secret algorithm, this does not and never can recreate the face used to create the template to begin with. Recreating the original face or photograph from the facial template is simply impossible. It is akin to recreating a complete motor vehicle from a tyre tread mark left on the road.

So, the fear that once a person’s biometric is compromised, that the hacker can recreate the person’s original face, fingerprint or whatever the biometric happens to be, is simply misplaced. Without the vendor’s secret, proprietary algorithm to decode it, your biometric is useless to a hacker and is still secure. Far more secure than passwords and the like that are either stored in clear text or can be easily decrypted with brute force attacks. Neither of these is possible with a properly created biometric.

This makes biometric authentication one of the safest and most secure methods of identifying people are who they say they are and is the primary reason why law enforcement and border security agencies around the world have long since adopted biometrics into their security protocols.

Find out more about biometrics

We’ve written extensively about biometrics and you can learn much more about the uses of biometrics in our Market Leadership posts including:

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