Futurist's Cheat Sheet: Biometric Authentication

The problem is not new. One way or another, people have to validate their identities. I am trying to enter a building or a Web service that only Joe Smith should have access to, I need to offer evidence that I am, indeed, Joe Smith. For decades, authentication has required cards and passwords. In the near future, you might just use a part of your body. (The "Futurist's Cheatsheet" series surveys technologies on the horizon: their promise, how likely they are, and when they might become part of our daily lives. This article is Part 2.)

What Is It?

Use a thumb-print to unlock a door, an iris scan to unlock a smartphone. Maybe use your voice to interact with your mobile device, PC or television. Biometric data can be used for verification (say, allowing access to a personal bank account) or identification (say, identifying you to law enforcement agencies). 

How It Works

Pick a body part, any body part. There is a good chance that it has a unique identifier that can be used authenticate an individual human. Of course, not all body parts have practical applications in all situations. For instance, hormone analysis would be an awkward choice of authentication for entry to a building. 

Criminal forensics provided an early proving ground: Identification based on fingerprints became a viable form of authentication in the late 1800s. DNA performs much the same function today. 

Cloud technology is giving rise to new, ubiquitous forms of biometric authentication. Physical identifiers for large groups of people can be uploaded to a server and used for purposes such as accessing data on a company computer, gaining access to secure buildings or unlocking smartphones. Storing biometric keys in the cloud makes it much easier for devices to recognize and recover the data and for users to put it to work.

Potential Impact

The rise of a digitally connected society has led technologists to propose the notion of “one true login.”  Today, you may have one password for Facebook, another for Gmail and so on. At the same time, you may have an ID card such as a driver’s license. Depending on where you work, you may have an ID badge that you have to scan to get into your office. What if all of these functions could be replaced with one biometric identifier unique to you? 

Such an innovation could improve personal and data security an dalso improve user experiences across a variety of devices. Much of modern computing has been built around the standard user interface: keyboard and screen. That is starting to change as computers, smartphones, tablets, and televisions incorporate cameras that recognize your face, touchscreens that know your fingerprint and microphones that recognize your voice. Quick, convenient biometric authentication would tie these devices more seamlessly into daily life.

Challenges

The technology for biometric authentication is already widely available. The true challenge comes in building an acceptable infrastructure where the technologies can be easily implemented. Part of the challenge is cost in replacing or augmenting legacy authentication methods such as the magnetic keycard system in a hotel or an enterprise. Another challenge is legal. Many states and countries have privacy laws on how certain types of biometric identifiers can be used, inhibiting how enterprises and commercial ventures can deploy these authentication methods. These privacy laws are important as people are extremely sensitive in how their biomedical is stored and used. 

When Will It Be Ready?

Research firm Gartner focuses on the future business aspects of biometric authentication in its most recent Hype Cycle report, but the consumer realm poised to see practical applications. Smartphones can be unlocked through a variety of biometric keys such as voice, facial recognition or a fingerprint. Apple, Samsung and Microsoft will likely lead the way. Companies like Nuance are tuning mobile devices to the user's voice. And enterprises won't be far behind. Before long, companies will implement biometric authentication for onsite building access and smartphone security.

Additional Information

Book -- Anil K. Jain et al. -- Introduction to Biometrics

Michigan State University -- Partial Face Recognition: Alignment-Free Approach

Microsoft Research --  Progressive Authentication: Deciding When to Authenticate on Mobile