Governments have been using biometrics – the authentication of an individual by evaluating one or more unique biological traits – for over a century, ever since fingerprinting was used as a method for identifying criminals. The acceleration of technology just in the past few years, however, has ensured that biometrics has progressed well beyond the humble fingerprint. Today, major biometric technologies include finger scanning, facial recognition, iris and retinal scanning, finger geometry, voice recognition and dynamic signature verification.
All signs indicate that biometry will only become an even more pervasive presence in people’s lives as the technology improves and risks associated with false or delayed identification grows. In recent news, the Commonwealth government has struck a deal with states and territories, which means drivers’ licence photos will soon be added to the government’s vast national biometric databases. While these databases already have passport photos of Australian citizens, covering about 50 per cent of the population, the addition of drivers’ licences means the government will be able to access some kind of visual biometric for about 80 per cent of the population.
As is to be expected, this news has been the subject of reservations on the part of the public, with fears of “uberveillance” and invasion of privacy. Many of these fears, however, stem from misinformation about biometrics and how they are used. In reality, biometrics are an innovative solution for the age-old problem of how to quickly and accurately identify someone, while ensuring compliance and minimisation of fraud.
Here are just some of the benefits of using biometrics for citizen identification.
Benefits of biometric identification
Preventing identity fraud
Biometrics have been well-established to have a high degree of accuracy when it comes to identifying an individual. The likelihood of finding two identical fingerprints, for example, is one in 64 billion.
It is also markedly more difficult to forge biometric data, such as voice or facial features, compared to more conventional means of identification, such as passports, ID cards, passwords or badges, all of which can also be lost, stolen, or simply given to another person. Biometrics, therefore, play an important role in preventing identity fraud.
Improving public security
Most people might be surprised to hear how long it can take for law enforcement to successfully identify a criminal or terrorist – it some cases, it can take up to a week. Having a more comprehensive biometric database, therefore, means criminals and terrorists can be identified much more quickly.
“We are doing it in a 1950s way essentially, when we should be doing it in a 21st-century way, so what we have developed is a new system that will allow that to happen instantly,” said Justice Minister Michael Keenan in October 2017. “It is not giving law enforcement agencies any new powers, but it would make it much faster to identify people suspected of criminal activities."
Many politicians have acceded that having such a database does curtail civil liberties to some degree, but that this consideration pales in the face of citizen safety. “I think all of us have had to accept that our civil liberties from time to time aren't what they used to be," said New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian. “At the end of the day what matters most is public safety. I think all the community would expect us to have a ‘no regrets’ policy; we don't want to look back tragically and say, ‘What could we have done to prevent something from happening?’”
Saving organisations and customers time and money
According to Professor Brian Lovell from the University of Queensland, everyone spends a total of 3 weeks of their working lives simply identifying themselves. When you think about all the time spent collecting 100 points worth of documentation, or resetting forgotten passwords, or doing two-factor authentication, it quickly adds up. Biometrics can go a long way towards eliminating the time and costs associated with identification.
We’re already starting to see this in action in facilities like Brisbane Airport, where they have recently introduced facial recognition technology at check-in and the boarding gate. This means travellers are able to simply walk through an automated boarding gate, which verifies the correct passenger is boarding the correct aircraft, without them having to show a boarding pass or passport. According to the SITA president for Asia Pacific Sumesh Patel, the trials have shown a 70 per cent reduction in passenger processing times.
“Why this is important is today’s passenger, when we surveyed them, basically what they said is what they are looking for in terms of their airport experience is fast, easy and secure. That’s the top of their priority list,” Mr Patel said to Australian Aviation.
“But the challenge is how do we reconcile the passengers’ demand for an efficient and seamless journey with the increasing need for effective security. For years, airports, governments and technology providers like us are juggling in terms of these conflicting demands and the answer for that we know is biometrics.”
Improving customer experience
Between social media accounts, emails, application and services, the average person might have upwards of 20 different identities. Trying to keep track of all our various logins, passwords and pins is an almost impossible task, forcing most people to resort to using the same password for multiple uses, making us more vulnerable to hacks. Two-factor authentication can also be clunky and inconvenient, and in fact drives users away from using the service.
Biometrics are set to make memorising several passwords a thing of the past. Voice biometrics, for example, will play an important role in a new payments platform that will allow Australians to transfer funds from one account to another almost instantly. Not only does voice biometrics help authenticate users and prevent fraud, it also facilitates conversational commerce, helping to give customers a more engaging and satisfying experience.
“It's got to be consumer driven because consumers are now wanting to have better interfaces to the sorts of transactions that they want to do. They want that immediacy and they want to do it in a conversational way,” he explained.
“They want to know, ‘Hey, how much did I spend on Uber last week? Or when is my Telstra bill due?’ and being able to do that and make that transaction happen in the environment they're in at that point in time.
“I think that's where things like voice biometrics will have a place because it secures the individual in having that conversation.”
An essential layer of security
While biometrics are highly accurate, they are certainly not infallible. That is why they should be one part of a multi-layer security environment that combines several authentication solutions.
We’re also starting to see the rise of behavioural biometrics, such as typing biometrics, in which a person’s unique typing patterns are used to identify them. These types of biometrics means a user’s identity can continually and automatically be confirmed and reconfirmed without having to interrupt the user’s experience, providing the ultimate in convenience without compromising security.
To learn more about the future of biometrics and other emerging technology trends, be sure to register for the next CeBIT conference.