The invasion of biometrics

Depending on where you stand biometrics is a good thing or something that is downright sinister. The truth is that to a degree biometric technologies have a valid and useful purpose but also have the potential to be invasive to a degree never before known to humankind.

Whatever your position, biometrics has already gained widespread acceptance in some areas such as the corporate realm. And law organizations are unsurprisingly trying to push the boundaries of morality and intrusiveness by researching DNA biometrics.

Within the context of technology, biometrics is the measurement and analysis of human body characteristics, such as DNA, fingerprints, eye retinas and irises, voice patterns, facial patterns and hand measurements, for authentication purposes.

Technology seeking an application
Security and convenience has been the driving force behind biometric adoption such as finger and retina scanners and facial and voice recognition. This is all well and good but as with any technology there’s often a desire to use it simply because it exists and to squeeze as much commercial juice out of it as possible.

For instance, a few years back there was a rush by a raft of big boy tech giants such as Intel, Microsoft and Google to incorporate biometrics into their products. In short, facial recognition was tagged as a great tool for user customization and targeted ads. But it hit a roadblock and it didn’t work so well in low light conditions.

But that said it is creeping into consumer technologies. For instance, Panasonic introduced a new range of LED and plasma TVs with speech and facial recognition capabilities into the Australian market. The aim is to let users use a voice command to open the home screen, and then the TV will use facial recognition to identify individual users to match them with their personalized home screen. This may seem a trivial use of biometrics but what is trivial today in a few years can be mainstream.

Millions of downloads
And within the context of security there can be no doubt that the use of biometrics is growing. In January this year UK research outfit Juniper Research claimed that more than 770 million biometric authentication applications will be downloaded each year by 2019.

This is a staggering claim given that six million biometric apps were downloaded in 2013. However, the move will be driven by the increased security that biometric apps offer mobile device users, says Juniper.
The company said that fingerprint authentication would account for the overwhelming majority of such apps driven by increasing deployment of fingerprint scanner hardware in mid-range smartphones. But it also added that other forms of biometric identification that don’t require hardware are also emerging, such as Descartes Biometrics’ ERGO ear print biometric authentication app and Nuance’s voice authentication service.

Lend me your ear
Yes, you did read that correctly. You can unlock your smart phone with your ear. The interesting thing about this, apart from smearing your phone with your ear print, is that it illustrates how biometric boundaries are constantly being pushed back.

And unsurprisingly it’s organizations like the FBI that are attempting to redraw the lines. On its website the FBI proudly declares: “The FBI has long been a leader in biometrics… However, important additional biometrics-related work is being undertaken by the FBI Laboratory, such as DNA activities, while voice and face recognition initiatives are being pursued in our Operational Technology Division.”

We know your DNA
This can conjure up dark images of entire populations identified by DNA mandated by law and controlled by a sense of fear generated by surveillance at a molecular level. The thing about DNA identifiers is that it can’t be spoofed as you can with fingerprints and irises. At the moment there is quite a strong level of resistance to governments putting together DNA databases by stealth. But for how long?

At the same time accurately sequencing an individual’s genome structure isn’t yet available to make it commercially viable. But that said, advancements in DNA reading technologies are developing all the time and promise, or threaten, to bring the cost of such an endeavour down. Given the outright intrusiveness of such a technology and the questionable morality of power seeking to maintain and exercise control through molecular surveillance, we can only hope that this one never reaches the light of day. But don’t hold your breath.

If you think this is far-fetched, think again. In your pocket you have more computing power than was used on some Apollo missions thanks to Moore’s Law and the ever increasing potency of processors that power today’s smartphones. And even a few years back who would have thought that a simple little app like Shazam would draw its power from high performance computing more suited to solving the riddles of the universe?

Out there or not?
The point is that the potency and persuasiveness of technology is not diminishing, it grows with every passing month. And in parallel, the quest for ever tighter security keeps pace.

Software has already been developed that can identify you by the way you walk. Other research indicates that by measuring the areas of hip, knee and adjoining joints you can also be uniquely identified. The U.S. military agency Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has already zeroed in on this. Large scale deployment for surveillance purposes is technologically challenging so you don’t need to worry about developing a limp or dragging your foot behind you just yet.

But of course, biometrics hasn’t stopped there. Just as our fingerprints are unique biometric identifiers so apparently is our body odour. However, trying to develop olfactory computers that can detect individual body odours is possibly a step too far.

Impossible to fake
And just a few steps up from the molecular DNA level there is the fact that the network of veins in our bodies are also unique identifiers. This feature is something that has been tested in retinal scans, as opposed to iris scans which are based on unique patterns within the ring-shaped region surrounding the pupil of the eye. The retinal scan captures the pattern of blood vessels at the back of your eyeball and it’s widely used in military bases, nuclear reactors and other high-security locations because they are near impossible to fake. Retina scans are also about 70 times more accurate than iris scans and 20,000 times more accurate than fingerprint-based methods.

It’s almost inevitable that ever more sophisticated methods of biometric identification will appear and become a de-facto method of recognition. Experts contemplate a not too distant future where scanners will read our DNA strands and identify us when we walk into a bank or store or government building.

Swipe cards, barcodes, fingerprint readers, two-factor authentication, RFID tags, and other identification tools will seem like ancient relics while high-level security will incorporate DNA identification with retinal scanning, and body blood path maps.

The digital generation
This may seem far-fetched today and chillingly intrusive. But how will the digital generation feel about it; the young children of today who are growing up with technology from a tender age? To them it might seem normal and silent acquiescence may well be the order of the day.

Security must always reflect a need, hence the need for good internet security that protects computing devices and personal information. The issue with biometrics is that while it can successfully address some of these issues, especially around mobile devices, it can also easily become security for security’s sake. In this lies the danger, that as a society we can go too far because security must always be balanced against personal liberty and the freedom of the individual.

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