The future is now: Biometric technology leads the way

  • Biometric technology offers innovative ways to control access and streamline transactions.

  • Government is investing in new biometric research and usage.

  • Applications are quickly advancing, especially in mobile, voice print, and wearables.

We’ve seen biometrics used in movies for years. Think CIA agent using a fingerprint or iris scanner for individualized access into a secured, locked-down room. In the real world, biometrics made a splashy appearance in enterprise IT in the early 2000s as manufacturers raced to include dedicated fingerprint scanners in notebooks and handhelds.

As biometrics technology continues to evolve, here are six updates to know:

1. Biometrics is still a balancing act.

Biometric algorithms always involve a tradeoff between false positives (incorrectly granting access to an unauthorized user) and false negatives (incorrectly denying access to a legitimate user). Finding the right balance for each application is a combination of art and science. Biometric devices and algorithms continue to shrink the gap and, by extension, the tradeoffs.

Meanwhile, user experience experts work constantly to find the right mix of acceptable false positives to prevent undue frustration and inhibit widespread adoption. What won’t change is that in any industry, when a physical or digital barrier is protecting your most valuable assets, the most secure choice will be to accept a higher rate of false negatives.

2. Mobile plays a central role.

Emboldened by the success of fingerprint scanners on high-end smartphones and tablets, vendors are now racing to push more authentication and transaction tasks to mobile devices. As both consumers and enterprise users become accustomed to tap-and-scan authentication, expect heavy focus to fall on the role of mobile devices to ease the path to biometric adoption.

3. The password-free dream is still alive.

One of the touted advantages of biometric technology is that it emphasizes “who you are” over “what you know.” That makes a biometric credential more difficult to steal or to intercept than a password or physical token. Multifactor authentication schemes require both an “owned” and a “known” component, such as a fingerprint and a password. This multifactor approach provides enhanced security at the cost of user convenience. Sophisticated criminal organizations are attacking password databases very aggressively, making a multifactor approach increasingly appealing.

Trade groups such as the Fast Identity Online (FIDO)  Alliance are keeping the dream of a world with drastically fewer passwords alive. The group’s concept calls for a combination of biometric scans and portable plug-in tokens to do the heavy lifting of authentication, relying only on a short PIN for occasional use.

4. Voice print is gaining traction.

Fingerprint scanners are all the rage, but the human voice provides a rich bed of unique characteristics, making it near-perfect for biometric identification. Financial institutions are accelerating their acceptance of voice authentication, which can cut down on the need for lengthy and inconvenient in-person meetings by verifying a client’s identity remotely. Once authorized by voiceprint, customers can complete complex or high-value transactions by phone or online. Banco Santander Mexico has already enrolled over 1.7 million customers in voice verification.

5. Watch the government.

Government agencies are not always at the forefront of IT trends, but on biometrics, they have been given both the budget and the mandate to be extremely aggressive. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) Next Generation Identification (NGI) system went live in 2014, creating a central clearinghouse for innovations in face, fingerprint, and iris scanning. Although not all results can be expected to be discussed openly, high-profile success stories such as the capture of Neil Stammer are likely to be trumpeted as an indication that the system is working. Industry can learn from the successful protocols and should keep an eye on public sector results.

6. Wearables join the biometric toolkit.

Gartner projects over 68 million smart wearable devices will ship in 2015. As adoption of wearable technology grows, so does the potential to use wearables as biometric markers.  Zero-Effort Bilateral Recurring Authentication (ZEBRA) uses a biometric bracelet to uniquely identify a user based on his proximity to a computer terminal. When the user moves away from the computer, he is automatically logged off from the session.

In a research pilot for a medical setting, the ZEBRA program highlights how wearables play an important role in user identity in an environment where time is of the essence and errors made by improper or unauthorized use are serious problems. Wearables provide an intriguing alternative to fingerprint scanners and smartphones.

From head to toe, biometric technology continues to provide novel and innovative ways to control access and streamline transactions. Widespread consumer adoption of biometric payment schemes and the growing inclusion of reliable fingerprint scanners in high-end smartphones will fuel acceptance in the years to come, making it easier for businesses to ride the adoption wave.

How does  or will — your company benefit from using biometrics?

Jason Compton is an internationally published writer and reporter with extensive experience in enterprise technologies, including marketing, sales, service, and collaboration. AT&T has sponsored this blog post.

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