Biometrics — measuring unique physical characteristics to verify identity — was once a form of cutting-edge technology found only in science-fiction and spy movies.
But the authentication techniques are now not only being integrated into our most-used devices, but are quickly becoming a feasible — and in some cases convenient — alternative to plastic cards, bar codes, PIN numbers and passwords.
Government and law enforcement agencies have used biometrics for years — including the century-old method of fingerprint analysis, and increasingly iris scans and facial recognition for border security and visa processing.
But many private companies in sectors from banking to health care are also embracing the technology as a personalized means of reaching potential customers, as well as a way to offer safer, more secure interactions.
The field is developing rapidly. Every smartphone, tablet and wearable device will have an embedded biometric sensor by 2020, according to Acuity Market Research. Half of purchases made on mobile devices by then will be authenticated by biometrics, according to consultancy Goode Intelligence.
Apple’s Touch ID, which uses a fingerprint to unlock the iPhone, may be the best-known biometric system, but other companies are also dabbling in the space.
Ford is exploring a biometrics system that could let users open and start their car with their fingerprints, pulse or voice, rendering keys unnecessary.
Insurer Manulife recently launched a voice recognition system for its customers. Instead of a password, callers say “At Manulife, my voice is my password” and software determines if that matches the voice associated with an account.
MasterCard will launch “selfie pay” in Canada later this year, letting consumers use facial recognition instead of a passcode or signature to make payments in stores. MasterCard is also testing heartbeat identification software from Toronto-based Nymi, which uses a wristband embedded with an electrocardiogram sensor.