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Biometric authentication: From speeding travel to providing ID for the marginalized

Multimodal technologies are about to change how we handle identity. Here's what to expect in the short term.

In 1951, "Fingerprints Don’t Lie" became the first movie to show biometrics on the silver screen, making those tiny ridges the primary piece of evidence in a fictitious murder case. While the distinctiveness of fingerprints has since become commonly accepted, at one time, their use for identifying people and solving crimes was a rather novel concept.

Today, we are at a similar juncture with newer forms of biometrics. Facial recognition, iris scanning, palm-vein readers, voice-pattern algorithms, and other such technologies have advanced so rapidly that it seems almost inevitable that they will soon play a central role in our daily lives.

Yet, unlike fingerprints, experts say we aren’t likely to depend on any single biometric technology to unlock car doors, pass through airport security gates, or traverse international borders. That’s because, as good as these innovations might be, they’re not infallible. They make mistakes. More important, because almost everything is online and connected these days, they also bring privacy and security challenges.

“Biometrics is a probabilistic science, meaning there is always room for error,” says Dimitrios Pavlakis, a digital security analyst with ABI Research. “But the combination of different biometrics technologies under one authentication instance, referred to as multimodal biometrics, offers a great way to enhance accuracy and security.”

This multimodal approach, which often combines both biometric and physical forms of identification, is already taking root in digital identity projects around the world. We’ve seen it showing up in financial services, with Goode Intelligence predicting 1.9 billion banking customers will use biometrics in some way by 2020. Now, with IT infrastructure costs coming down and the technology maturing, it is emerging in aviation, travel, and tourism as well.

Reaching the plane faster

CLEAR, a program implemented in the United States, for example, is using multiple biometrics technologies to speed law-abiding travelers through security gates. After a one-time enrollment, the company connects travelers in 35 airports and stadiums nationwide to their biometrics—fingerprints, irises, and faces—allowing them to bypass long and often tedious TSA lines.

According to SITA, an air transport IT and telecommunications company, more than 60 percent of the world’s airports and 40 percent of airlines plan to invest in similar biometric identity management solutions in the next three years. 

Delivering the promise of the capabilities of biometrics requires a powerful infrastructure

Delta Air Lines is already taking that route. Last December, it launched the nation’s first biometrics terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Terminal F travelers can now enter or scan passport information into kiosks during check-in. After selecting “look,” the system captures a facial image and authenticates the passenger by comparing it with passport or visa photos. Delta says the process saves an average of nine minutes when boarding a wide-body aircraft.

Faster ticketing for trains

Multimodal biometrics is also finding its way into train stations around the world.

The Indian government plans to deploy biometric kiosks at railway stops and other locations to encourage paperless ticketing. German authorities are testing the use of facial recognition technology at Berlin’s Südkreuz station, and passengers on China's High-Speed Railway are using biometrics at Wuhan train station to board trains. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, the Rail Delivery Group, which represents Britain’s 23 train companies, plans to use biometric technology, including retinal and fingerprint scans, as part of a wider effort to overhaul its rail fare system.

Changing the automotive world

In automotive, Hyundai has become the first production automaker to embed a biometric fingerprint sensor in both its outside door handles and interior ignition. The readers in its 2019 Santa Fe SUV lets authorized drivers enter and start their vehicles. It also knows exactly who is entering and automatically adjusts the seat position and mirrors to that person’s preferences. The SUV’s sensors will also be capable of recognizing electricity levels in the driver’s fingers to block thieves from stealing fingerprints and then accessing and taking a vehicle.

Speaking of thieves, law enforcement could eventually put biometrics to use as well—in self-driving police cars. According to reports, Motorola has filed for a U.S. patent on a “mobile law enforcement communication system.” The proposed system would use a combination of facial recognition and fingerprint biometrics to identify and process an apprehended suspect, scan for any weapons, and administer a breathalyzer test—all while sitting inside the autonomous police vehicle. Theoretically, the suspect could even be given a court hearing by video feed while still in the car.

Streamlining border crossings

Such biometrics efforts aren’t limited to the private sector. In fact, a recent Accenture survey of 800 public service technology professionals in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific found that nearly 70 percent of respondents are deploying or considering deploying biometrics. Biometric solutions are in high demand and are being used widely across government agencies, according to the study.

As an example, the Canadian government, along with the government of the Netherlands and a group of industry partners, is piloting an ambitious, multifaceted biometrics effort to streamline border crossings. The Known Traveller Digital Identity program uses biometrics, cryptography, and distributed ledger technology (blockchain) to let travelers digitize and share travel documents with authorities before their trips.

The World Economic Forum, which conceptualized the program, says the effort isn’t intended to replace human-based screening but augment it.

“What we want to ultimately test is the ability to use both biometrics and digital identities to clear people who have been identified as lower risk more quickly,” says Lauren Uppink, head of aviation, travel, and tourism industries for the World Economic Forum. “Many security procedures in use across a number of airports involve screening everyone as equally suspicious, which is why we get such bottlenecks.”

Programs like Known Traveller are also under consideration in the United States. Last October, the TSA released its Biometrics Roadmap, which seeks to “leverage innovative biometric concepts and solutions that will enhance security effectiveness, improve operational efficiency, and yield a consistent, streamlined passenger experience.” Photos are also a requirement for TSA pre-check enrollment and reportedly being used to test facial biometric technology in certain airports.

Multimodal hubs for identifying the unidentified

One challenge many companies and government agencies might face with implementing multiple biometrics technologies is they have to efficiently assimilate them in order for the technologies to work together.

Marius Coetzee, CEO of Ideco in South Africa, believes he has an answer. His company recently started piloting a fully integrated, multimodal biometric identity management system. It’s a self-contained unit that marries a variety of biometrics capabilities—including fingerprint and palm-vein scanning, facial recognition, iris scanning, signature verification, and voice authorization—and securely integrates this data into existing data centers or back-end systems for interpretation and identity profiling.

While Coatzee believes such multimodal devices have important applications for travel and business, he also sees a much more socially relevant use for them: helping to identify the world’s unidentified. 

Coatzee points to World Bank Group data indicating an estimated 1 billion people around the globe, many in Africa, cannot prove who they are. They do not have a physical or digital identity and are not registered with any government agency, so they cannot benefit from government services. Similarly, he notes immigrants and refugees entering their new homes typically do not have official identities either and also struggle to qualify for resettlement assistance. 

Managing privacy concerns

Of course, anytime government agencies or corporations start collecting, aggregating, storing, and analyzing any data about private citizens, privacy concerns arise. The level of concern tends to vary by nation and the extent to which a country commits to biometrics.

In India, for instance, nearly every adult is being added to what the Wall Street Journal calls “the world’s biggest biometric identity database,” leading to multiple legal challenges. In the privacy-conscious European Union, biometrics is considered a “special category of personal data” that requires a special legal basis for processing under the General Data Protection Regulation, which took effect last year. Similarly, the Biometric Information Privacy Act in Illinois and the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 also restrict the use of biometric data without consent.

“The bad news is that, in most cases, the public is not properly educated regarding their privacy rights when it comes to biometric data,” says ABI’s Pavlakis. “It should be the involved parties’ responsibility to clearly educate users regarding how their personal data might be utilized and how (or if) it is properly safeguarded.”

Uppink of the World Economic Forum agrees, saying a consumer needs to know there is a trade-off—a balancing act—that occurs between the convenience of using biometrics and privacy data ceded along the way. “There’s a lot of public education about this that needs to be undertaken, and we need to make sure that industries using biometrics are doing it in responsible ways,” she says. “It’s great to provide better customer experiences, but it has to be done ethically.”

Biometric identification: Lessons for leaders

  • Access control, at all levels, is the entry point for widespread use for the technology.
  • Biometrics offers opportunities for underserved populations to access governmental services.
  • Accuracy in biometrics demands data, but data collection on a large scale requires careful consideration of potential privacy issues.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.