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The rapid development of biometric security technology has led to an increase in biometric systems being used for physical access control. In this article, we explore what biometric security is, how it’s used and look at the pros and cons of this increasingly popular technology.

What is biometric security?

Biometric security uses metrics and measurements to verify an individual based on their unique human features or characteristics. These can be broken down into two different types of identifiers:

Physiological: These analyse the composition of an individual to verify their identity. Physiological biometrics includes fingerprint recognition, facial recognition, finger geometry, iris or retina recognition, vein pattern, voice recognition and DNA.

Behavioural: These analyse the unique ways in which individuals act such as typing patterns, mouse, and finger movement, walking gait, gestures and even social media and website engagement patterns.

Types of biometrics security and authentication

Humans have all kinds of unique characteristics that can be used as a security tool:

DNA: Probably one of the most well-known biometric identifiers, DNA is used in law enforcement to positively identify a criminal or prove a person’s innocence.

Fingerprint recognition: Fingerprint systems analyse the locations of the dermal ridges or “minutiae” on the pad of your finger.

Facial recognition: Using an image of your face, special software analyses measurements and points on your face such as the distance between your eyes, to create a facial signature.

Optical recognition: Like a fingerprint, a person’s iris pattern is completely unique. But whilst your finger pad contains between 60-70 points of reference, your iris contains over 200 points of reference making it an excellent way to verify identity.

Vein pattern: Growing in popularity, this process works by scanning through your finger to detect the vein pattern beneath.

Voice recognition: Biometrics aren’t just limited to physical attributions. Using a stored sample of a fixed passphrase, voice recognition software analyses tone, pitch, and frequencies to identify a match.

How is it used?

Biometrics are used to answer two slightly different questions about a person:

  • Who are you? (Biometric identification)
  • Are you who you say you are? (Biometric authentication)

Biometric identification: This requires a centralised database that allows biometric comparison to match and positively identify an individual. For example, DNA stored on a law enforcement database.

Biometric authentication: This compares biometric data to validate authentic stored data. A good example of this is a fingerprint login on a smartphone. Every time a user logs in, the device checks their fingerprint pattern against the data stored in the phone to verify identify. Biometric authentication does not require a centralised database and instead uses data stored within the device.

Who uses it?

Historically, biometrics have been used by global authorities for a wide variety of reasons such as border control, military access control and law enforcement. But as we become more reliant on our devices to access our personal data, the demand for biometric security to become more mainstream has increased. And big companies have listened with millions of smartphone users now using fingerprint and facial recognition to access devices and applications.

As a result, there are many different sectors that use biometrics as a form of identification:

Law enforcement: Police and other law enforcement agencies use biometric systems to support criminal investigations and includes criminal ID solutions such as fingerprint recognition and palm recognition. Live facial recognition, which gives the ability to perform facial recognition in a crowd, has become increasingly popular and is gaining interest in public security.

Border control and travel: A biometrics passport, or e-Passport, contains an embedded microprocessor chip that holds biometric data and is used to authenticate the identity the passport holder.

Building access: In recent years, there has been an increase in the usage of biometric solutions for granting access to building such as places of work, schools, and hospitals.

Mobile access and authentication: Both Android and iOS devices have added biometric security features. Apple were the first to take the step with fingerprint recognition but have since gone on to develop ‘FaceID’. In the coming years, it’s expected they will incorporate FaceID with the traditional login or passkey to create and 2-factor authentication process.

Advantages of biometric security

  • Improved security: Since a person’s features and characteristics are unique, it’s much more difficult to hack than traditional logins.
  • No passwords: It’s no longer necessary to remember passwords, create weak ones that are easy to remember, or suffer the consequences of forgetting your password.
  • Speed: Scanning your finger or your face is much quicker than having to input your login and find and swipe a card.
  • ID on the go: Wherever you go, your biometric data is always with you. No more leaving it at home or on the bus.

Disadvantages of biometric security

  • Environment: The environment can impact how well the technology functions.
  • Errors: Whilst rare, it’s entirely possible the technology could accept an unauthorised user or reject and authorised user.
  • Requires hardware and integration: A biometric system requires a sensor, computer, and software.
  • Scanning challenges: Certain scenarios such as wearing glasses when scanning your iris or growing a beard that doesn’t match your stored facial data can cause errors.
  • Cost: Whilst biometric systems are becoming more mainstream and costs are reducing, they are still one of the most expensive solutions.

How easy is it to integrate into device development?

There are many options available commercially that provide access to biometric authentication, especially fingerprint and iris recognition. Complete modules are available to provide read and authenticate functionality, some of these can be connected to a remote database to provide rudimentary biometric identification.

In addition, there are several software modules which can be combined with off the shelf readers to produce sophisticated systems with minimal effort.

Security now goes hand in hand with digital and device development for good reason and as you can see from the list above, there is a wealth of choice when integrating this in your device. The best solutions need careful consideration from a user’s point of view and to help promote a level of trust with your product or process. This technology space continues to evolve as sensor technology develops but it will remain a key part of device interaction.

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