What makes you different from everybody else? As it turns out, quite a lot!
Your fingerprints, your voice, your face, and so many other aspects distinguish you from everybody else in the world. And that’s a good thing from a security standpoint.
Why? Because these unique characteristics can be used to verify your identity. In this article, we discuss the various biometrics types.
Summary: Biometrics are physical identifiers that are completely unique to you. As your unique biometric identifiers are difficult for hackers to spoof or copy, companies use them to ensure only you gain access to their systems. There are many types of biometric authentication techniques, including fingerprints, voice recognition, and facial scans.
What Is Biometrics?
We all have unique physiological characteristics. No human being is exactly the same as any other person, which means our very bodies are a form of identification.
Security experts have picked up on this. Today, they use these inimitable human characteristics to identify individuals. The very things that make you who you are can prevent identity theft and other serious cybersecurity issues.
But that doesn’t answer the question.
So, what is biometrics?
Biometrics refers to any physical characteristic you have that is completely unique. Examples include your fingerprints and your voice. Though others may have similar characteristics, they’re never exactly the same. As a result, organizations can use these biometric identifiers to check that you are who you say you are.
Biometric data typically falls into one of three categories.
These are the unique identifiers you have on a molecular or genetic level. Have you ever seen a detective show where a forensic team collects DNA samples? That DNA is a biological biometric. Your blood and body fluids are unique to you and can be used to determine who you are. Biological biometrics usually need to be tested before your identity can be confirmed, making them one of the more complex forms of this technology.
These are the types of biometric data most people think of when they hear the term biometrics. Morphological traits are things like your fingerprint, your eye, and even the shape of your face. These are all physical characteristics that are unique to you. Biometric technologies can scan these morphological traits, collect data about them, and use them to confirm your identity.
These are unique patterns related to how you act. The way you speak, walk, or even type on a keyboard can be used as behavioral biometrics. A lot of government agencies use these types of biometrics to figure out what a person is like and to track any changes in their behavior. For example, the Department of Homeland Security uses behavioral characteristics as a form of biometric authentication.
Now that you know the basics of biometric identification, we need to look at how companies use your biological and behavioral characteristics in their security systems. That means we have to look at some biometrics types. Each of these biometric systems has pros and cons, which we’ll also explore.
Type No. 1 – Fingerprint Scanners
Fingerprints fall into the morphological biometrics category. And we all have them. Just take a look at the ends of your fingers and you’ll see the circular spiral of lines that make up your fingerprint.
At a glance, fingerprints look the same. But the reality is that every single fingerprint is different. Each has unique points that combine to create a print that is unlike any other found in the world. This uniqueness allows companies to use a fingerprint scan as a form of biometrics authentication.
There are several ways to do this.
The most common is to use an optical sensor to convert the fingerprint into a digital code. Fingerprint scanners record this code and check against it whenever somebody places their finger on them. If the print matches the stored code, the person receives access to whatever they’re trying to get into.
Less common methods include using a linear thermal sensor to save how your fingerprint converts heat. Some may also use a capacitive authentication sensor, which is a silicon plate that contains a bunch of tiny electrical sensors. The sensor creates a capacitor field, which detects the distance between the lines in the skin on your finger to scan your fingerprint.
Whatever the specific method, the result is the same. A scanner records your fingerprint. You place your finger on a sensor whenever you need access. The scanner then checks the data it holds to determine if you’re authorized.
Your fingerprint is unique. That means no other person can access your account using their own finger. Fingerprint scanners pick up on the differences and deny access.
Using these types of biometric features means you don’t have to remember passwords. That may not seem like a big deal. But if you have a bunch of different accounts with different passwords, fingerprint scanning prevents a lot of headaches.
It’s relatively easy to install a fingerprint scanner into a device. Most modern smartphones have them built in. This ease of installation makes these identification systems cost-effective for suppliers.
You don’t have to learn anything about using a fingerprint scanner. Just hold your finger over the scanner and follow the instructions. Once the scanning is complete, you simply place your finger on the scanner and it uses your biometric data to grant access.
Any injuries you suffer that lead to finger scarring may disrupt fingerprint scanners. Worse yet, you may not be able to register another fingerprint, resulting in you being locked out of your account.
There are several ways to bypass a fingerprint scan. Somebody could use your finger while you’re asleep, such as placing it on a smartphone scanner to get into your phone. More complicated methods use silicon to create a copy of your fingerprint, which can overcome some types of scanners.
Type No. 2 – Iris Recognition
Your iris is the colored part of your eye that surrounds your pupil. If you take a close look at it, you’ll see the iris seems to contain tiny threads. These are little muscles that help to shape your pupil and control whether it contracts or expands. They’re vital to ensuring your eyes work properly.
They’re also unique.
These muscles create little folds that iris scanners can use to collect biometric data. The scanner determines what makes your eye different, allowing you to gain access based on the small muscle threads in your iris.
The idea for iris recognition was first proposed by an ophthalmologist named Frank Bursch in 1936. But the technology didn’t catch up with the idea until 1990 when John Dufman patented an algorithm that could create unique iris scans using an algorithm. Since then, iris recognition has become one of the best forms of biometric security.
So, how does it work?
A scanner locates your pupil and builds from that to scan your iris and eyelids. It then removes unnecessary biometric data, such as that related to your eyelids and eyebrows, to focus on the iris. Next, the scanner divides your iris into blocks and scans the muscle fibers. The resulting data is converted into numerical values and stored by a computer.
Your iris is now successfully scanned.
When you need access to whatever the biometric system protects, you look into the scanner. It performs the same process to get its numerical values. The scanner then checks those values against whatever is stored in its biometric database and grants access based on whether the numbers match up.
Some biometric devices are even more advanced. In addition to conducting an iris scan, they’ll instruct you to blink on command. This checks whether the eyeball being scanned belongs to a living, breathing person.
As an internal organ, your iris is incredibly difficult to replicate. It’s also well protected, which means it’s less likely that you’ll experience an injury that makes it impossible for iris recognition technology to scan it.
Iris scanning is a great replacement for traditional passwords, which are hard to remember and prone to security risks.
Your iris’s muscle fibers are distributed almost at random. That makes it practically impossible for somebody to have the same fiber distribution as that found in your eye.
Iris recognition doesn’t work too well in low-light conditions. If the lights go out, you’re probably not getting in.
Some people find iris scanning intrusive, especially because they have to get up close and personal with a scanner.
While the technology is among the best ways to capture biometric information, its execution could use improvement. We’re seeing that already with the introduction of additional authentication techniques, such as the blinking we mentioned earlier.
Type No. 3 – Facial Recognition
How do you run a quick check on a person’s identity?
You look at their face! A simple glance at somebody’s face tells you whether you know them or not. That principle is what lies behind facial recognition technology. Of course, biometric facial recognition systems are a lot more complicated than looking at somebody to see if they are who they say they are.
Facial recognition technology uses a scanner to log 80 facial nodes. Think of these as little biometric data points on your face. After collecting its nodes, the system uses them to look at a bunch of variables:
Nose length and width
Eye socket depth
The distance between your facial features
Your cheekbone shapes
There are many more, but you get the picture. The idea is that the 80 nodes combine to demonstrate all of the little things that make your face different from anybody else’s. In this way, face recognition works similarly to iris and fingerprint scans. A computer picks up on a bunch of different datapoints and compiles them to create a single database entry to determine your identity.
We’re seeing increasing use of facial recognition technology on smartphones and in-home security systems. For example, you may be able to unlock your smartphone by looking into its camera. Interestingly, the technology has other uses beyond security. Facebook uses facial recognition to scan the photos you upload so it can conduct automated recognition that allows it to tag people without you having to do it yourself.
Facial recognition is particularly important in an age where we’re communicating more and more using video. A company may set up a meeting where sensitive information is going to be shared. Each participant may undergo a facial scan, which is used to verify their identity before they can enter the videoconference.
Facial recognition is a simple technology to grasp. You look into a camera, let it do its thing, and get access. You don’t have to learn or remember anything as you do with password-based systems.
You don’t really have to interact with facial scanners. They can pick up your features from a distance as long as you’re looking into the camera or scanner.
Scanning faces is particularly useful for systems that use multi-modal biometrics. A system may combine several biometric techniques with facial scans to confirm that you should receive access.
Many people feel wary about the possibility of companies using facial recognition in ways they don’t approve of. The way Facebook uses the technology may cause concern about how third-party companies use your unique characteristics for marketing purposes.
Facial recognition systems require appropriate lighting. If a scanner or camera can’t see your face properly, it likely won’t grant access.
Your face is a flexible thing. Different facial expressions can affect what a scanner picks up. If you’re smiling when the scan is first taken, you’re going to have to smile every time you get scanned after that. Otherwise, the technology may not be able to match up the nodes it collected in the first scan.
Facial accessories can be a problem. A scanner may pick up on piercings and similar accessories as nodes that it uses to confirm your identity. You might confuse the system if you change or remove these accessories.
Type No. 4 – DNA Matching
DNA is the most common of the biological biometrics. It’s found in practically every aspect of you, from your skin to your bodily fluids. Furthermore, your body’s DNA code is specific to you, though it can also be used to establish your familial ties.
That sounds complicated, right?
Your DNA structure is part you and part the genetic makeup of your parents. Combined, this creates unique DNA strands that can be used to identify individuals. As such, DNA is one of the best forms of biometrics.
However, it’s rarely used to provide access to systems and facilities.
Though DNA is unique, it also requires extraction and testing. Methods for doing this are intrusive to the point where many people simply don’t want to do them. After all, would you be happy with a biometric system extracting blood or taking a skin sample every time you need to gain access to something?
But DNA comes into its own in forensics work. Investigators gather DNA samples from crime scenes so they can track the people who were present. Of course, this relies on the suspect’s DNA data being logged into a centralized database. Still, even in cases where DNA isn’t used to catch suspects, it can be used as evidence in court cases to prove the person on trial was at the scene.
Other uses for DNA include tracing family histories, as we see with the many companies that help you to find relatives based on DNA samples. The familial links in DNA can also be used for paternity tests.
DNA is unique, which makes it one of the best biometrics types. It’s also difficult to fake because it requires somebody to physically extract your DNA to spoof.
In addition to proving guilt, DNA evidence can also prove a suspect’s innocence.
The reliability of DNA means that the few organizations that use it as an authorization technique generally don’t have to worry about hackers or scammers.
Extracting DNA is intrusive and requires some form of testing to work. Even something as simple as a mouth swab may feel like too much for people to gain access to an account or facility.
DNA testing is subject to human error. Though computers can help to match DNA samples, sloppiness and cross-contamination can ruin a sample before it’s tested.
Privacy concerns exist with this biometric technology. Somebody who can test your DNA can also figure out who your family is, assuming they have the appropriate samples.
Type No. 5 – Behavioral Biometrics
The way we act can be distilled down into patterns. Those patterns are somewhat unique to you, which allows others to confirm your identity based on how you act. That’s the underlying principle behind behavioral biometrics.
For example, let’s think about how you use a computer.
In this scenario, your behavioral biometrics include how you type. The shortcuts you use and the speed at which you type are behaviors that other people can’t replicate easily. How you move your mouse is another example. Some people scroll using a wheel while others prefer to drag or click.
All of these little actions are replicable on their own. But when combined into a behavioral whole, they’re incredibly difficult to copy. For example, somebody may type at the same speed as you while making more mistakes, which is a difference in behavior. Alternatively, they may use a mouse wheel to scroll but generally make larger sweeping movements with the mouse than you do.
These differences are data points for biometric systems. Using machine learning technology, organizations can keep track of how you use their equipment. They then build a profile based on this usage, which they can compare against other profiles to determine if you’re using a device or if somebody else is.
Let’s come back to our typing example.
We’ll assume that a hacker has your device and has gotten past the initial layer of authentication that prevents access. However, that hacker doesn’t type as fast as you do. With behavioral biometrics, the system can track those typing patterns and determine that you’re not the person who’s using the device. The hacker gets booted out and can’t do any more damage than they already have.
Behavioral biometrics are rarely used in day-to-day life. You’re unlikely to find that your home computer incorporates this type of technology to prevent people from using it. It also requires the use of complicated artificial intelligence and machine learning technology, which are both still in their infancy. Nevertheless, it has the potential to serve as another layer of biometric protection against intrusion.
By tracking your behavior, this type of biometrics can determine who’s using a device even if the user has gotten past other forms of authentication.
Behavioral biometrics can track a huge number of individual characteristics, such as how you type, how tightly you hold your phone, and even how you walk.
Proponents of behavioral biometrics claim that it is almost impossible to replicate the exact actions a person normally takes.
Behavioral biometrics may have marketing uses. It’s possible that companies could collect this form of biometrics to create client profiles that allow them to personalize advertising.
Behavioral biometrics is a new concept that hasn’t been adopted in the mainstream yet. Though it seems secure, few people have access to it.
Changes in your behavior could restrict your access to a system. Maybe you’re fatigued and can’t type as fast as you normally would. That reduced speed could lock you out of your computer. What if you take a typing course and become faster? You might lose access in that scenario too.
Questions exist about the validity of behavioral biometric techniques. After all, do people really behave so consistently, without any changes, over long periods?
Consumers may not want companies to have such a deep understanding of them that they can track how they behave. Registering a fingerprint into a database is one thing. But a system that is so intrusive that it can track the actions you take raises serious privacy concerns.
Type No. 6 – Voice Recognition
You’ve probably heard a lot of people who sound alike. Take Barack Obama and Dwayne Johnson. They have very similar tones and speaking patterns. But it isn’t the same voice. Hence, you can still generally identify who’s speaking between the two.
Why is that?
Though many voices sound similar, they’re never exactly the same. As a result, your voice is as much a biometric identifier as your fingerprint or iris pattern. That’s great news for companies that communicate with customers via the phone.
Take a bank that uses phone verification as an example.
The bank could ask you to recite complicated passwords and answer security questions before you can access its telephone banking services. That tends to work, as long as nobody else knows these authentication factors. But it’s long-winded and requires you to remember information that you may not have needed for a long time.
Alternatively, the bank could use an automated system to detect your voice. You get asked to repeat some phrases so your voice samples can be stored in a centralized database. Every time you call after that, the biometric system asks you to repeat the same phrases and grants access based on whether your voice matches the samples.
It’s quick, easy, and convenient.
Voice recognition is also great for use in multimodal biometric systems. A company may use a scanner to recognize your face, fingerprint, or iris. Once you’re past that initial authentication, it will then ask you to repeat a phrase as a secondary form of identification.
Almost everybody has a voice. Voice recognition is usable by most people and requires very little effort or knowledge to set up. Typically, setting up voice recognition is as simple as repeating phrases when you’re instructed to do so.
Even though people can sound similar, they never sound exactly the same. Your voice is as unique as your fingerprint or iris.
Voice recognition is easy and cost-effective for companies to implement. It also doesn’t require the user to have access to special scanners.
Background noise and patchy phone connections can disrupt voice recognition technology to the point that it becomes unusable.
If you have an illness that affects how you speak, you may not be able to access your account. Even something as simple as a cold that gives you a clogged nose can change how you speak enough for systems to prevent access.
Hackers can overcome voice recognition systems by using a recording of your voice. Granted, that may be difficult if the system requires you to say specific phrases. But more passive systems that track general voice patterns may be fooled.
These systems may struggle to accurately record data for those who have speech impediments. They’re also unusable for those who aren’t able to speak.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the difference between single modal and multimodal biometrics?
Single modal biometrics refers to using one type of biometrics to access something. If you use your fingerprint to gain instant access to your smartphone, you use single modal biometrics. Single modal systems are also sometimes referred to as unimodal systems. Multimodal biometrics involves combining several types of biometric data to grant access.
How is biometric data used?
Biometric data has many purposes. In security, it’s used as an authentication factor to confirm somebody’s identity. Certain biometrics types can be used to trace somebody’s family history or determine if they were in a location at a specific time.
What are the advantages of biometrics?
Uniqueness is the key benefit of biometrics. Your physiological and behavioral attributes are yours alone and are incredibly difficult to copy. As technology advances, biometrics are also becoming more cost-effective and convenient.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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