Can Biometrics Make Your Life Easier?

In the not-too-distant future, you’ll use personal biometrics instead of passwords for just about everything. That’s helpful, but it could be risky, too.

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Imagine unlocking your front door with your fingerprint, using a retina scan to retrieve your forgotten email password or going to a camera-enabled ATM that uses facial recognition to let you withdraw cash.

It all seems inevitable in a world where fraud is becoming more rampant and hackers are trying to steal your data. In the United States alone, identity theft and fraud amounted to US$16 billion lost in 2016.

Biometric data, which is information completely unique to an individual, makes it that much more difficult for a fraudster to impersonate you and rack up debt on your behalf.

Biometric data, which is information completely unique to an individual, makes it that much more difficult for a fraudster to impersonate you and rack up debt on your behalf.

It should make our lives much simpler and easier, too, says Robert Douglas, the founder and CEO of Toronto company BioConnect. We won’t have to remember any more passwords – facial recognition software will tell the bank, or the website you’re trying to access that it’s you – and going through airport security will be a breeze.

“How many times does your day get disrupted because you couldn’t remember a password or forgot your keys at home?” he says. “Biometrics will help you in that you won’t have to look for these things anymore.”

The technology is already here: Douglas’s company has developed a way for people to open doors with just their fingerprints, while the new iPhone X can be unlocked using facial recognition.

However, the growing business use of biometrics begs questioning, says Midori Ogasawara, a PhD candidate in Queen’s University sociology department. What does it mean for privacy? And what if something goes wrong?

Privacy concerns

Just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Ogasawara set out to write an article about a new biometrics system being rolled out at a Japanese airport. Although she was approved by the airport to test the system, she says the machine kept rejecting her.

False negatives are a common pitfall of biometrics technology, she says, and that’s a cause for concern. If biometric recognition fails, it’s very difficult for you to prove your identity.

“If you give biometrics information to someone, you are actually giving someone a power to determine who you are and explain who you are,” Ogasawara cautions.

Expanding this technology to non-border-related matters is something organizations such as Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group is watching. The group’s national coordinator, Tim McSorley, says Canadians should question biometric collection.

“The concern is that the more information like this is held in one place, the greater concerns are around privacy breaches,” he says. If your biometric data ever got hacked, it could cause big problems.

BioConnect’s Douglas adds that people should do their homework when it comes to privacy concerns. Ask companies, whether it’s a bank or the manufacturer of the biometric lock you’re putting on your door, how they’re protecting your identity.

“It goes back to how a company is designing products and are they putting privacy first,” says Douglas, who adds that his company uses a number of data encryption methods to protect people’s identities.

A biometric future

While biometrics technology may feel Orwellian, it’s not hard to imagine a future where it is integrated into almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives. Market-intelligence firm Tractica estimates that the biometrics industry will be worth US$15.1 billion by 2025.

“The possibilities are endless,” says Douglas. “And that’s the exciting part of this.”

Biometrics could streamline living in an increasingly connected world by making our biological traits the only password and authentication we’ll ever need. Rather than being overwhelmed by the pace of technological change, we could adapt far more easily to our connected surroundings.

As McSorley says, “You can’t change your fingerprint like you can change a password.”

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