Access denied - debunking popular biometrics myths

Nick van der Merwe, Director of Technology & Business Development Muvoni Biometric & Smartcard Solutions.

Johannesburg, 01 Aug 2014
Read time 4min 50sec

There are numerous unique behavioural and physical means of identifying an individual beyond a shadow of a doubt. These are known as biometrics and generally include fingerprints, facial features and voice patterns to name a few.

There are many myths and misnomers surrounding these unique identifiers and the technology used to capture them. Nick van der Merwe, Director of Technology and Business Development at Muvoni Biometric & Smartcard Solutions (MBSS) would like to set the record straight on a few of these myths.

Fingerprints are the only real form of biometrics

"While fingerprint metrics go way back and are still seen as the predominant biometric in national and corporate sectors, there are many other rising technologies that stand to compete on the same level," says Van der Merwe.

One such biometric is voice recognition, which seeks to serve big business well in the near future. Call centres can benefit in identifying its customers in a much shorter space of time through their voice pattern foregoing the barrage of seemingly limitless questions needed to correctly identify an individual.

"This is especially attractive to the mobile and banking sector as the biometric capturing device is built into every phone," says Van der Merwe. "The only problem is the consistency of voice quality as cell phones don't always get good signal and the caller may be interrupted.

In addition to this there is also iris scanning, signature analysis, facial recognition, and a few other esoteric (but unreliable) biometrics like walking style and even odour detection. But Van der Merwe cautions in trusting some of these as there is a reason why fingerprint scanning, voice recognition and the like are as widespread as they are... because they are consistent and durable over time.

But my smartphone has a fingerprint scanning app. Why not just use that?

Van der Merwe believes that smartphone fingerprint scanners are, at this point in time, a gimmick. That is, if you are comparing it to the level of sophistication of commercially available fingerprint scanners.

"It's like comparing a clunky sedan with the latest Ferrari," he says. "Although there is no reason that this will not improve over time. This is exactly why Apple recently bought out biometric security company AuthenTec for a healthy $356 million. Biometrics on smartphones is a way of the future."

For now though, there is definitely a big gulf between the scanner built into smart devices and the proper fingerprint scanning devices available on the market.

In the movies you see retinal scanning quite a lot. Is that a reality?

"Yes that technology exists but it is not what we use," asserts Van der Merwe. "Retinal scanning is a technology that was developed decades ago and is actually quite invasive as it shining a light onto the retina at the back of the eyeball. It's really not all that accurate."

According to Van der Merwe, when it comes to the eye, the iris is like the fingerprint of the eyeball and sits in the front of the eye. The iris is the circle of colour that surrounds a person's pupil and is uniquely different in every individual.

"Iris scanning is a biometric technology that has actually evolved quite a bit over the last few years," he says. "It is much less invasive than the popularly known retinal scanning and when it comes to the eye that is the biometric of choice. So when you see retinal scanning mentioned in the movies, know that it should be iris recognition," says Van der Merwe.

Biometrics is an invasion of my privacy

The collection of personal data related to one's physical and behavioural attributes may seem like an invasion of one's privacy, but it is really not. This information does not provide an organisation with anything more than a means of identifying a person is who they say they are.

"Looking at somebody's credit card history, or even worse, their Internet search history, can be far more telling about a person's private life than any biometric ever could," says Van der Merwe. "I would say that the only problem is that the technology is advancing faster than the laws needed to govern them.

With biometrics set to replace one's pin number at an ATM, keeping our biometric data legally protected is of the utmost importance. But any old thief won't be able to just crack your biometrics."

Can somebody cut off my finger or take out my eyeball and pass a biometric scanner?

"These days this only happens in movies and television," says Van der Merwe. "Where you have the hero sneaking behind enemy lines, killing a guard and using the guard's eyes or hands to get through security."

In reality, all modern biometric detection devices have what is known as 'liveness detection', meaning that nobody can get through that system without a living, breathing body attached to the biometric in question. This kind of attack is called spoofing and happens when a biometric sample is replaced by an imposter's sample, but biometric technologies are taught to detect the numerous and subtle differences presented by an original 'live' sample and a fake 'dead' one.

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