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“I want it all and I want it” … at my fingertips

(Image credit: Image Credit: Flickr / AMISOM)

Personal information, treasured memories, access to accounts, funny cat videos. These can all commonly be found in just one place, on your personal digital device. With multiple passwords proving too difficult to remember, many of us now have these set to autofill, leaving our personal information vulnerable to malicious cybercriminals. However, general cybersecurity advice still recommends we update our passwords every 90 days, reintroducing the issue of remembering seemingly ever-changing passwords. To overcome this, biometric data can be used as a physical key we will always have with us to help people access their personal information. Yet, while this technology eradicates the issue of frustrating updates or forgettable passwords, no solution is likely to emerge for human biological changes as we inevitably get older.

Queen guitarist Brian May, now 71, recently fell victim to his appearance succumbing to the unavoidable ageing process he was stopped at passport control when security couldn’t match him to the man with the iconic dark curls still portrayed on his passport. So, while it seems a shame to highlight an example of a rock star losing that image of eternal youth, this highlights the reality that, while our physical identity is more stable than passwords, age can have an impact on our biometric data.

Admittedly, as we age our physiology naturally changes: hair becomes greyer, our voices usually become deeper and unsteady, optical diseases such as cataracts and glaucoma can alter our irises, and our faces can change shape as we lose skin elasticity. Advances in technology have ultimately meant that smart devices may no longer recognise our voice commands, and our faces might no longer unlock our phones.

Whilst these changes can impact our biometric footprint, fingerprints in contrast may be immune to the visible ageing process.

Are fingerprints ageless?

In reality no. Our fingerprints are determined before birth, at roughly 24 weeks. However, they are incredibly strong. So strong that even after all our vital organs have given up, the miniscule ridge pattern that develops on our skin is one of the last things to disappear on our bodies after we pass away. In fact, a study from America’s National Academy of Sciences into fingerprint recognition, which comparatively tested more than 15,000 fingerprints over 12 years, found that although there is a slight degradation in perfect match quality as we get older, that difference is negligible.

Fingerprints’ resolute resistance to time makes them the most secure and stable method of biometric authentication. However, whilst their patterns hardly change, skin elasticity does decrease over time. This can have a slight negative effect on the fingerprint biometric scanning process if the contact between dry skin and scanners is not firm. Fortunately, a solution is already available in the form of larger sensors and advanced matching algorithms for fingerprint biometric authentication devices.

Biometrics: accessibility challenge or opportunity?

In our society there are unfortunately many forms of prejudice, of which ageism is a part. For its unwelcome presence to impact the biometric authentication process as we try to access our personal information, or buy something, would be even more demoralising. Consequently, if fingerprints are to become the principle method for payment authentication - thanks to their nearly ageless properties - card manufacturers firstly need to abandon their drive to reduce sensor sizes. Larger fingerprint sensors ensure authentication devices will capture a greater surface area and a larger proportion of biometric data, eradicating issues with malfunctioning as users age.

In addition, device and sensor manufacturers must also trial their technology on a wide range of fingerprints. Testing users of all ages, finger sizes, genders, and ethnic groups will ensure that authentication devices can quickly and accurately respond to every user. With modern sensors and detailed user testing, along with advanced algorithms, companies can ensure that their devices will be accessible to all.

Biometric scanning should be at our fingertips

For authentication technology to be successful in our current instant-need climate, it too must be as easy to use as it is to order an Uber or an Amazon package. This is yet another reason why fingerprint biometric technology must be tested rigorously. If ageism doesn’t enrage the modern human, waiting to authenticate payment longer than they “should” is bound to cause an angry outburst.

It’s inevitable that age can pose an obstacle for smooth, uninterrupted biometric authentication. Ensuring that this innovative technology is universally accessible will mean it can be used by consumers of all ages, finger sizes, genders and ethnic groups. It is therefore of utmost importance that creators of biometric technology continue to address the issue of ageing physical data so that when life slows down for people, access to their phone, or payment card, does not. This will be pivotal to bring the concept of fingerprint biometric authenticated payments to the mass market.

David Orme, SVP, IDEX Biometrics ASA (opens in new tab)

David Orme is Senior Vice President of IDEX Biometrics.