Five things to know about biometrics
Facial recognition technology may sound authoritarian, but biometrics are more embedded in everyday life than you may think.
- Biometrics measures a person’s physical characteristics to verify their identity.
- The airport SmartGate system holds a database of 27 million images of Australian passport holders.
- It’s possible for websites to identify people by the rhythm of their typing.
By Josh Gliddon
1. Biometrics has a long history
Biometrics is the process of measuring a person’s physical characteristics to verify their identity. Most people are familiar with biometrics from their phones. Apple introduced Touch ID into its iPhone in 2013, which used a fingerprint to unlock the device, and other phone makers have followed suit. But there’s evidence fingerprints were used to distinguish between individuals as long ago as 500BC in Babylon. The Chinese were also early adopters; in the Qin Dynasty (221-206BC) handprints were used as evidence in burglary investigations. Modern fingerprint classification methods were developed in British India in the late 19th century, and by the early 1900s were being used by police across the British Empire.
2. Facial recognition is the new personal ID
Since 2005, Australian passports have included a chip that contains the holder’s digitised photo and other passport details. When a passport holder approaches customs, a camera at a SmartGate scans their face and completes a biometric match against the information in the passport chip. If the scan matches, the holder is (generally) waved through. Behind the system is a database of 27 million images of Australian passport holders. This prevents people from applying for passports under different names or identities, ensuring the integrity of the Australia passport system. Since the system’s introduction in 2004, biometric passports have become widespread. New Zealand started issuing them in November 2005.
3. How many profiles does India’s biometric database hold?
More than 1.2 billion people in India – over 99% of adult residents – have their biometric information stored in a government database called Aadhaar. The database, launched in 2009, has a facial photograph of the individual, all 10 fingerprints and scans of both irises. The information is then linked to a unique 12-digit identification number issued with an Aadhaar card.
The idea is that having everyone’s personal details on file will reduce social security fraud and make it easier to pay taxes and fines. However, the identification platform has made its way into broader Indian life, with many banks using Aadhaar details to identify individuals when they open accounts or undertake transactions.
4. Social media uses biometrics
Have you ever wondered how Facebook and other social media sites identify who’s in a group photo? It all comes down to facial recognition. Sophisticated algorithms compare the profile image you provided for your page with other profile shots and then tags people. The system gets smarter the more photos you load into Facebook. This is because the more data that machine learning can access, the more accurate it becomes. Some people find the face-matching algorithms on Facebook creepy, and in 2019 the social media giant made its photo tagging an opt-in feature to bolster privacy. Facebook still knows who you are, but it won’t tag photos with names publicly.
5. How can your typing give you away?
It’s no secret that we’re tracked online, with cookies and other identifiers following us across the web and showing us personalised ads. But it’s also possible for websites to identify people by the rhythm of their typing. Keystroke dynamics is just one behavioural biometric that can confirm (or betray) your identity. The Royal Bank of Scotland, in partnership with Visa, is also analysing how an individual holds a device, the speed of scrolling and their usual times of purchases as a way to identify customers and make payments more secure.
“It’s... possible for websites to identify people by the rhythm of their typing. Keystroke dynamics is just one behavioural biometric that can confirm (or betray) your identity.”
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