From pins and patterns to fingerprints and retinas: this is the Age of Biometrics.


Imprinting Biology on Technology: Biometrics

If you’re anything like me, you often find yourself clicking Forgot your password? Smartphones, especially, are pesky little things. They’re portable, advanced, and often carry sensitive information. With their ease of use and practical form factor comes the risk of compromise: your smartphone might get lost, misplaced or forgotten and end up in the wrong hands. Enter, Passwords. There’s one for everything: from redacted files at The Pentagon to your Chicken Tikka order on Swiggy and everything in between.

It might remind you of the Terminator when I say that technology has been effectively eliminating biology: that’s the underlying fear with sentient AI. According to inventor extraordinaire and notorious meme lord Elon Musk, integrating technology with biology is our best bet going forward. Fortunately, smartphones show a similar trend.

What might have seemed like a step backward is turning out to be a giant leap forward. With retiring passwords, we’re rapidly moving into the Age of Biometrics. Forgot your Password? Might as well Forget your password. You won’t need it anyway.

The Genetic Encryption

The human body is genetically wired to be a password. You really are unique: from the print of your fingers, toes, lips, tongue and retina right down to your tooth/bone structure and DNA. A number PIN or pattern might be relatively easy to duplicate or replicate but when it comes to biology, there’s quite literally nobody like you.

Smartphones, lately, have started utilizing these key biological differences among every member of the species. Manufacturers make your private data invulnerable to malware and hack attacks when their password is biometric.

Fingerprint Scanning found on all major smartphones

fingerprint scanning

Motorola was first to jump on the fingerprint scanner wave in 2011 with the Optical Atrix. Apple was close behind with the iPhone 5S pushing Capacitive fingerprinting into the mainstream. Now with Samsung Galaxy S10’s in-display fingerprint scanner, we get our first taste of Ultrasonic technology.

Optical Fingerprint Scanners scanners are the oldest method of comparing fingerprints. This tech relies on essentially taking a photograph, and using algorithms to decipher unique patterns such as ridges, by analyzing the light and dark areas of the image. This method captures the scan in 2D and is limited to a finite resolution which inhibits its accuracy.

Capacitive Fingerprint Scanners use tiny capacitor circuits to collect data about a fingerprint instead of creating a traditional image. Capacitors can store electrical charge, and conductive plates on the scanner surface allow them to be used to track the ridges and gaps electronically, which may then be deciphered by an analog-to-digital converter.

Ultrasonic Fingerprint Scanners are being pioneered by Qualcomm as their latest fingerprint technology. The unit consists of an ultrasonic transmitter and a receiver. A pulse is transmitted against the finger that is placed over the scanner. Some of it is bounced back to the sensor while some of this pulse is absorbed, depending upon the pores, ridges and other details that are unique. This works in a 3D Plane, increasing accuracy by a whole dimension.

Facial and Eye Scanning seen on iPhones and Galaxy Devices

Facial and Eye Scanning

Facial recognition performs authentication by matching a scan taken by the phone to a previously taken scan of the authorized user. Different companies have different models of execution, often using infrared cameras, ToF sensors, dot projectors, and flood illuminators in conjunction with the phone camera. Facial recognition basically tech analyses the geometry of your visage. The distance between your eyes and the distance from forehead to chin, among others, are key. The software identifies facial landmarks that distinguish your face. The result: a unique facial signature.

Retina and Iris Scans are performed by casting a low-energy infrared beam into a user’s eye as they look through to the eyepiece. The blood vessels within the retina absorb light better than the tissue around it and are optically identified. Once captured, specialized software compiles the unique features of the network of irregularities. With this map, the coordinates of irregularities create concentric rings centered on the coordinates of the pupil. This results in a unique, hard to spoof genetic print.

Audio Recognition used in LG and Google devices

Audio Recognition

Voice pattern biometrics function by digitizing a profile of the user’s speech creating a model voice print that can be memorized by the device. Biometric technology chops each spoken word of sample audio into segments composed of dominant frequencies, each of which has tones that can be captured digitally. These segments of tones collectively identify a unique voice print which is housed in databases similar to the storing of fingerprints among other biometric data.

The combined effect of unique physiological and behavioral components of speech enable verification of the identity of the users. Voice verification, a subset of this tech, works by observing distinct vocal pointers such as pitch, cadence, and tone.

Voice recognition, however, may be vulnerable to replay attacks: someone record and replaying your authorization may acquire the user’s privileges. Newer, more sophisticated systems use liveness testing to confirm that a recording is not being used.

The Next Frontier: Flesh and Blood

Despite radical improvements in biometrics already, tech companies continue to innovate. A patent from Apple describes the use of sensors to detect the wearer’s skin texture pattern. This mechanism would allow users to automatically unlock, say, an Apple Watch when worn.

Even though this is hearsay and speculation, the technology can open floodgates of opportunities for development. These sensors may be used to track electric fields or even distinguish hair from the texture of the skin.

Meanwhile, Australian companies are said to be working on vein recognition patterns, which are expected to make their way down to consumer products by the mid-‘20s.

Experts reckon biometrics will reach all aspects of commerce, finance, information and authorization within a decade.

Come to think of it, we’ve been carrying the genetic key to these technological locks all along. Who would’ve thought?