Biometrics, a term derived from the Greek words bio, meaning life, and metron, meaning measurement, refers to the science and technology of digitally measuring and mapping individual biological features in order to identify and authenticate a person’s identity for security-related or forensic purposes.

With fingerprinting being one of the oldest forms of biometrics, biometrics is not a recent advance, though the technological innovations and applications involved in it have taken identity authentication to levels that only a generation ago were the stuff of sci-fi.

With the rise of e-commerce and the exponential increase of transactions occurring through online channels, along with increasingly sophisticated data hacking, the global biometrics market is rapidly expanding in response to the need for more secure, less easily compromised (faked) forms of identity authentication.

Conventional authentication methods – passwords, PINs, keys and tokens – are relatively easy for experienced data hackers to discover in order to breach even the most fortified of firewalls of the biggest businesses: In recent years, the credit cards of over 40 million Target customers were compromised, and in 2017 Wells Fargo was subject to a data breach in which 50,000 client reports were leaked. By contrast, biometric data is extremely difficult to falsify.

With both businesses and governmental agencies on the hunt for unique authentication credentials, the global biometric technologies market, says Market Wired, will reach $41.5 billion by 2020, from a total of $14.9 billion in 2015. This constitutes a five-year compound annual growth rate of 22.7 percent.

Biometric technologies for identity authentication currently include:

  • Chemical: DNA analysis and scent signature
  • Visual: ear, iris, retinal, face, fingerprint, and hand geometry
  • Behavioral: gait, voice, and handwriting

Biometric ear identification shows particular promise because, unlike the face, this feature changes little over a lifetime. In addition to its potential to make e-commerce more secure for consumers, ear recognition can also be used forensically. The FBI has built a massive bio-recognition database, as has the Department of Homeland Security, and in 2015 the Los Angeles police department sank millions of dollars into biometric technology to expand its identification capabilities.

With these advances in biosecurity technologies comes the potential for overreach. In other words, the barriers to widespread adoption are not technological or even economic, but rather socio-cultural and legal. With the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, the constitutionality of obtaining legal consent for collecting biometric data has been called into question, with concerns about the preservation of both information privacy and physical privacy.

Advances in biometrics appear to constitute the security model of the future, with its potential as a force for good limited only by the ethos of the human agencies entrusted with crafting the legislation to ensure that these powerful technologies are adopted and implemented for legitimate ends through the legal consent of consumers and citizens alike.

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