What's biometric technology, and what's a biometric passport?

Friday, Sep 08 2017 10:41 AM

What is biometric technology?

The term refers to the application of biological data – in other words, using your fingerprint, facial features or eyes to access digital technology. Instead of relying on a password or PIN number – both of which can be stolen, lost or forgotten – biometrics identify you using your physical characteristics, making it much more convenient.

How biometric technology works

There are three steps to using any biometric system: enrollment, storage and comparison. During the enrollment stage, the system learns basic information about you – whether it's your tone of voice, eye scan or fingerprint. It then analyses these traits and translates them to graphs or codes. Then, when you use the system by speaking aloud or scanning your fingerprint, it compares the information you present with what it has on file. If it matches, it allows you to perform a certain function (unlock your phone, say). If it doesn’t, it’ll ask you to try again.

Where is biometric technology used?

Because it's a lot more secure, biometric technology was originally reserved for personnel handling confidential information, like military and intelligence staff. But as it’s become more affordable, it's started to be used in laptops, and – more recently – in smartphones, tablets, smart TVs and speakers. Voice-activated personal assistants like Google Now use it, as does any phone with a fingerprint sensor or iris scanner.

What is a biometric passport?

A biometric passport – or an E-passport – includes an electronic chip which includes information about your facial biometric that is used to authenticate your identity.

They were introduced in the UK in 2006 – the picture below shows how they work when you approach the border.

Which biometric technology is best?

While it's a lot more secure than using a password, no one form of biometric technology is completely safe. Fingerprints are left on everything we touch, and can be copied. Someone's voice can also be replicated to trick a system. However, it's a lot more work than hacking a password, which can be done using automated systems or just good old-fashioned guesswork.

When was biometric technology created?

Fingerprints have been used to identify people for hundreds of years, but it's only in the last 20 years or so that it's started to infiltrate technology. It's not only high-end smartphones that use the technology now – even mid-range handsets often have a fingerprint scanner. Expect it to become more prevalent in future – good news if you've ever forgotten your password.

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Picture credit: Holger Funke [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons