Biometrics: a primer

What is biometrics?

The Home Office says that:

“A biometric is a unique identifying physical characteristic. Examples include facial recognition, iris patterns and fingerprints.”

Biometrics is not that simple.  Biometrics is the science of measuring and statistically analyzing human body characteristics, such as faces, iris patterns, fingerprints, voice recognition and so on.  These characteristics are not always unique, and so biometrics is used to give a statistical probability of identification rather than a definite identification.

What is the benefit of having biometrics?

The benefit is an added “safeguard” to prevent another person from using your identity card.  A fingerprint is much more difficult to forge than a signature.  This of course relies on your biometric data being checked against the national database every time the card is used.

How reliable are they?

Not reliable enough!  Tests were done on a sample of 10,000 volunteers, including disabled volunteers.  These showed that:

  • Facial scans worked for 69% of the “quota” group and 48% of disabled volunteers. That is three in ten of the ‘quota group’ and more than half of the disabled who were unable to use the facial scan technology.
  • Fingerprints worked for 81% of “quota” group and 80% of disabled people, but was more successful for young people. That is, two in ten people in both groups.
  • Iris scans worked for 96% of “quota” volunteers and 91% of the disabled group. Some glasses wearers failed the checks unless they took their glasses off.
  • 0.62% of the disabled group could not enrol using any of the systems.  That is nearly one in a hundred.  There are fifty million people in the UK – five hundred thousand will be un-registrable.
  • Black participants and participants aged over 59 had lower iris enrolment success rates according to the study.

These statistics came from this BBC News article.