Paying with Your Thumb

Imagine coming home after a long, hard day and saying to your spouse: honey, can you please massage my thumb?

Can you envision a world where your thumb, finger, or palm is your most valuable tool? What if the most offensive criminals had their thumbs cut off instead of being sentenced to death?

Okay, maybe that last one is a little too far fetched, but the applications for biometrics are increasing at a rapid pace.

Biometrics is the science of using biological properties, such as skin prints, retinal scans, and voice recognition, to identify an individual. And in matters of security it is gaining recognition and becoming increasingly popular.

How does biometrics work? It’s actually quite simple. Say a device is fitted with a fingerprint biometric sensor. Under the authority of a trusted individual, you place your index finger onto the scanner. It reads in your print, and verifies your identity. Now say that such a device locks or unlocks your laptop computer. Whenever you want to access your computer, simply place your fingerprint onto the scanner. The sensor inputs your print and compares it to the print you scanned in earlier. A match unlocks your computer. It works the same way in retinal scanners and voice recognition.

But what about faking a fingerprint, an “eye-print” or a voice pattern? Well it’s not so easy. First off, no two individuals have the same fingerprint, not even identical twins. Identical twins do share genetic information such as DNA, but cannot duplicate voice patterns, eye signature or fingerprints. Therefore, once the system accepts a fingerprint from John Doe; that fingerprint will always be associated with John Doe.

This technology has the potential to revolutionize the world as we know it. In a number of years, biometrics may go from a bright fantasy to everyday take-it-for-granted routine.

Take, for example, a credit card. Anyone who shops at a grocery store in the U.S. has seen one of these magnetic-strip wonders, if not used one. To deter credit card fraud, the best companies now print a picture of the authorized holder along with their signature and other holographic stickers on the card that cannot be readily forged. But imagine going to the store without any cash or credit card. Picture yourself cruising through the aisle, getting milk, meat, that Thanksgiving turkey, and a two-liter of soda and walking up to the cashier withâÂ?¦your thumb? That’s right. Of course, the store must either have a record of you or be connected to a database of which you are a member. But assuming the system is in place, you simply press your thumb to the scanner, it turns green, and within seconds you’re good to go!

Take that the scenario and tweak it. Now you’re using your eye to board a flight to London. You identify your bag by palming it open. Your car door unlocks when you greet it with a cheerful “hello!” Cell phone and other electronic thefts drop drastically because only the rightful owner can use the device. At home your front door unlocks when you touch the knob, but when your neighbor grasps it nothing happens.

Think of all the mundane tasks you do with a key, a voice, or anything that requires the merest hint of security. All of that can be replaced with biometric sensors.

Now of course, there are obstacles. Perhaps the most immediate is cost. The technology is out there. Already places like banks employ fingerprint scanners to combat fraud. Voice recognition software is installed in affordable cars like the 2006 Honda Civic (although it is used in the Navigation System, not for security). And although we can be snide and say that eye-scanners are only in movies; the truth is that government facilities actually do use these sorts of technologies – they are not in the public sector largely due to cost.

Besides cost there is the danger of compromised data. In order to provide a security system, the system itself must be secure. Imagine storing hundreds of thousands of prints in a database, only to have them stolen by a determined hacker. Although that is a very real danger, there’s not much the hacker could do with such information. The beauty of biometrics is, “to each their own.” The fingerprint is unique to the individual it came from, and at this time, cannot be duplicated.

Whether you scoff at this technology or embrace it fervently; it’s coming. So free your hands, open your eyes, and speak up. A little louder, if you please.

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