When Biometric Sensors Become Ubiquitous

Sensors Insights by Tom Kevan

The debut of the iPhone 5s, with its fingerprint-scan authentication, is a game changer. It's significant not because it introduces this type of security technology into the consumer sector, but because it represents a tipping point for widespread use of biometric sensors in consumer electronics. Five years from now, you will be able to look back and see the significance of this product upgrade. It may take a little longer, however, to determine whether this development merits celebration or concern.

Early Signs
Apple's move isn't the first appearance of biometrics in the commercial arena by any means. Devices incorporating facial-, voice-, retina-, and heartbeat-recognition authentication are already on the market, as recounted in Signal Online's article "Biometrics' Unprecedented Public Integration." Banking institutions are already using voice biometrics in apps and call centers for authentication. In Europe, shops use fingerprint scans to complete credit card transactions, and hotels use the same technology in lieu of room keys. As for higher-end systems, many casinos use facial recognition systems to identify troublemakers.

It's important to realize that these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Newcomers are arriving on the market every day. For example, Toronto-based biometrics company Bionym offers the Nymi wristband, a device that uses your heartbeat to confirm your identity to control access to mobile devices. The electrocardiogram-based authentication is not device- or brand-specific. The wristband will work with any smartphone, tablet, or laptop running the Nymi app. To get the Nymi up and running, you only have to initialize the device by registering your cardiac rhythms.

Ominous Applications
Not all new biometric systems target the commercial arena. For example, a crowd-scanning system called the Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS) is being developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. According to the New York Times article "Facial Scanning Is Making Gains in Surveillance," what began as a project to help the military spot terrorists and potential suicide bombers overseas morphed into an effort to create a tool for domestic law enforcement personnel.

The New York Times article says BOSS "consists of two towers bearing 'robotic camera structures' with infrared and distance sensors. They take pictures of the same subject from slightly different angles. A computer then processes the images into a '3-D signature' built from data like the ratios between various points on someone's face to be compared against data about faces stored in a watch-list database."

One expert estimates that BOSS is at least five years from completion. The developers are still trying to overcome challenges involving lighting and perspective, which arise when scanning crowds from a distance.

A complimentary project is the FBI's work on a Next-Generation Identification System. This system will include a national mug shot repository and offer state-of-the-art biometric identification services.

Weighing Profit and Loss
The elimination of passwords and personal identification numbers would make life much easier, and it may even improve security. That, however, doesn't necessarily mean that biometric security systems don't have a downside. A 2010 National Research Council report asserted that biometric recognition is "probabilistic" because of the potential for error and the ease with which biological markers can be copied.

Perhaps more troubling than the potential for error is the prospect of abuse. Without adequate safeguards, cyber criminals, large corporations, or government agencies could misuse biometrics or conduct intrusive surveillance of individuals or groups. For example, according to the policymic article "There's a Troubling Dark Side to Apple's New Fingerprint ID That No One is Talking About," a private investigator disclosed that "everybody that attended an Occupy Wall Street protest, and didn't turn their cell phone off … and sometimes even if they did … has [had their identity] logged, and everybody who was at that demonstration, whether they were arrested, not arrested, whether their photos were ID'd, whether an informant pointed them out, it's known they were there anyway. This is routine."

Whether society celebrates or regrets the widespread use of biometrics has yet to be determined. The technology is still in its nascent form, and the safeguards balancing privacy and national security have yet to be formulated.

Tom Kevan is a New Hampshire-based freelance writer specializing in technology.

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