Don’t stop me now: the curse of ageing fingerprint biometrics
September 2019 by David Orme, Senior Vice President at IDEX Biometrics ASA
Today, we store more of our personal information online and on digital devices than ever. To keep those digital identities secure, general cybersecurity advice recommends we update our passwords every 90 days, at least. However, that can lead to hastily-typed passwords we soon forget or leave scribbled on notes around the office. One of the benefits of using biometric data as a physical key for devices and personal information is that it stays timeless, avoiding these frustrating updates or forgettable passwords. But what happens as we get older and our physical biometrics change?
Queen guitarist Brian May, now 71, recently had to face this situation, when he was stopped at passport control because his grey hair no longer matches the iconic dark curls stored on his passport photo. So, while our physical identity is certainly more stable than passwords, clearly getting older can have an impact on our biometric data.
As we age our physiology naturally changes: hair becomes greyer, the pitch of voices can change over time becoming deeper or unsteady, faces change shape as we lose skin elasticity, and even irises can be affected by optical diseases such as cataracts or glaucoma. Of course, as children grow up, their faces also change rapidly between birth and adulthood, affecting facial recognition more frequently than in adults.
All of those are clear, noticeable changes that we can see, or hear happening. But do our fingerprints, which we know are unique to us, ever change?
Do fingerprints age?
The short answer is no. Our fingerprints are determined before birth, at roughly 24 weeks, and the 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.
This makes our fingerprints the most secure and stable method of biometric authentication to combat ageing physical features. However, we also know that the process of ageing can cause us to lose skin elasticity over time, with our fingertips becoming less flexible and more rigid. This can have an effect on the fingerprint biometric scanning process if the contact between dry skin and scanners is not firm, which could possibly lead to and increase the rate of ‘false rejects’ during the authentication process.
Therefore, to offset any degradation in scanning quality that may occur due to ageing, fingerprint biometric authentication devices should employ larger sensors and advanced matching algorithms.
Make authentication accessible for all ages
Age is a sensitive topic, and no one wants to have to inform a customer that there was a problem with their authentication because they have gotten older. So, while many producers are attempting to reduce the size of scanners in their devices to save on cost, using a larger fingerprint sensor will ensure authentication devices capture a greater surface area and a larger proportion of biometric data, balancing out any loss in data due to ageing fingerprints.
It’s also important to test devices and sensors on a wide range of fingerprints covering users of all ages, hand sizes, genders, and ethnic groups, so that authentication devices can quickly and accurately respond to all users.
With these advances in modern sensors and detailed user testing, along with advanced algorithms, companies can ensure they are well equipped to deal with the challenges surrounding any ageing of a fingerprint.
Biometric scanning should be as easy as clicking ‘buy-now’
In our ‘have it now’ era, it is essential that authentication technology is simple to use and accessible to all, especially as friction is the number one barrier to profitability today. Take Amazon’s and Uber’s business models for example. Their frictionless customer journey has seen them thrive in a highly competitive global marketplace, so that we now expect that ease of technology in all aspects of our lives.
To make sure consumer adoption of fingerprint biometric technology is as fast and pervasive as that of Amazon and Uber, biometric innovators need to make sure there are no obstacles because of ageing physical data in the journey. To be adopted by all, the fingerprint authentication process needs to be considered as easy as clicking ‘buy now’ on an e-commerce site or ordering a taxi in two taps.
Because of this, it’s important that creators of biometric technology continue to address the issue of ageing in physical data as they innovate new authentication measures and devices of the future. As users get older, they want to continue to have a smooth, uninterrupted experience while unlocking their phone, passing passport control, paying for goods or proving their identity.
As a result, biometric providers should stay on top of the latest technology and processes. Continually testing and evolving will ensure that fingerprint scanning mechanisms mature along with their consumers, keeping biometric authentication accessible to all, whatever their age. Ensuring that this innovative technology is universally accessible and can be used by consumers of every age will be pivotal in bringing the concept of fingerprint biometric authenticated payments to the mass market.