How are biometrics linked to my identity?

By now we’ve all become familiar with biometric authentication, using our unique characteristics such as face, voice and fingerprints to unlock our mobile devices, verify transactions, get access to our places of work (in some cases), amongst other things. In fact, we encounter biometrics so often in our everyday lives that we may not even realise it. But do you know why biometrics is linked to our identities?

Let’s begin with a brief history of biometrics.

Biometrics are your physical or behavioral characteristics that are unique to you. These include your tone of voice, hand shape, vein patterns, your eyes (all physical) and behavior such as your writing style, the way you use your keyboard and mouse, and others.

Using biometrics as means of identification is not new. It dates back to the 18th century when a British administrator in India named William James Herschel, had his subcontractors sign contracts with their fingers. The measurement of behavioral biometrics is not new either. It goes back to the 1860s when telegraph operators using Morse code recognised each other by the way they would send dash and dot signals.

The first time biometrics were used as part of scientific policing was at the end of the 19th century. A French police officer, Bertillon, used body measurement taken of specific anatomical characteristics to identify reoffending criminals.

But how does a computer system or your smartphone determine who you are just by your biometrics?

It’s worth noting that the term identity is used quite loosely in the context of biometrics, because there’s nothing in your voice, hand shape or any biometric to tell a computer your name, age or citizenship.

Official documents proving who you are such as your passport, ID, birth certificate, need to be presented at the moment of your enrollment into a biometric authentication system. During this stage, your biometric characteristics are recorded, linked and compared to the externally supplied personal identity information, to verify that no match exists. Once the enrollment is complete and the device ‘knows’ your identity, it can recognise you whenever you present the biometric characteristic recorded at the initial stage.

Biometric measures themselves cannot establish your name, citizenship and age, and do not prevent their misinterpretation during enrollment. However, they do stop a person from enrolling more than once under any identity.

Key purpose of biometrics

Biometrics can fulfil two main functions – authentication and identification. The first answers the question “Are you really who you say you are?”. In this case, biometrics allow your identity to be certified by comparing the data you provide with the pre-recorded information for the person you claim to be. The latter answers the question “Who are you?”, in which case you are identified as one, among others. This means that your data is compared with other people’s data stored in the same database to ensure there is no match.

There are many advantages of using biometrics as a form of identification. Some of the key ones include:

  • Biometrics are universal – they can be found in all individuals.
  • They are unique – they make it possible to differentiate one individual from another.
  • Your biometrics don’t change over time, which means that they are permanent.
  • They are also recordable, measurable (allowing for future comparison) and forgery-proof.
  • It’s much harder for a fraudster to fool a system that uses your unique physical characteristic to verify your identity.

How to protect your biometric data

While biometrics can protect your personal information from falling into the wrong hands, you still need to be vigilant when using this technology. Here are a few tips to stay safe when using biometrics:

  • Regularly update your software. If you use biometric verification on one of your devices such as your smartphone or tablet, make sure you always keep your software up to date. This will not only allow to add new essential security features to the software, but can also address bugs or security vulnerabilities.
  • Be aware of who you’re presenting your biometric data to. You need to always be aware of who is storing your personal information and where.
  • Check if you have the option to opt out. If you don’t want to use biometrics, remember that you may be able to avoid it by opting for another identity verification method. For example, Apple users can opt out of using Face ID in favor of leveraging a conventional password.

Interested to know more about biometrics? Check out some of our other posts on the topic here, and let us know if you have any questions in the comment section below: