Problems with Fingerprint Biometrics

Biometrics are showing up everywhere from the home, workplace, schools, banks, and more are all using biometrics for one reason or another. Biometrics are a fantastic way to identify someone and they are much harder to crack than a password.

The most commonly used biometric identifier is the fingerprint. Fingerprints have been used as a method of unique identification for more than 4000 years. In ancient Babylon, parties to legal contracts impressed their fingerprints in clay seals to protect against forgery. The Babylonian king Hammurabi ((1792-1750 B.C.E.) dictated that people who had been arrested be fingerprinted. For thousands of years mankind has known that no two people share the same fingerprint pattern. 

It would not be until 1684 when Europeans began seriously investigating the uniqueness and benefit of using fingerprints for identification. In that year, Nehemiah Grew published a paper on the ridge structure of fingertips and palms. In 1892, Jaun Vucetich, an Argentine chief of police opened the world’s first fingerprint bureau. Other countries would follow. In 1901, the famed Scotland Yard opened their first fingerprint bureau.

While identification is one of the major applications of fingerprint biometrics, access control systems that utilize fingerprints are becoming increasingly common. These days you can buy scanners that scan your fingerprint and allow you to gain access to protected areas without the need for entering a password. These types of scanners are used in applications from the home computer to high security facilities.

However, there are some problems with fingerprint biometrics.

  • Fingerprint readers are fairly easy to fool. Researchers have used photocopies of fingerprints to fool the reader. We leave fingerprints all over the place, including on the fingerprint reader. Anyone one wanting to gain access could lift off the fingerprint and make a copy to fool the reader.
  • False positives. If the software is not sufficiently sophisticated, the system could give access to someone who should not have access.
  • False negatives. The reader may not recognize a valid user as having permission to gain access. This could be a result of a dirty scanning surface or some changes in the user’s finger that make it impossible for the software to make a match. For instance, the reader may not recognize a user’s finger that has a cut or a burn.

Biometric pattern recognition software is getting more sophisticating making false positives and negatives less likely. However, the problem of fooling the reader is a serious one. You should never use a fingerprint reader as the primary method of securing access to sensitive information or physical areas.