In the modern world, personal and professional security is more important than ever. One solution many individuals, businesses, and even government agencies frequently turn to is biometric authentication. But for all of its benefits, it does come with a few drawbacks worth considering.
What is biometric authentication?
Before launching into the pros and cons of using biometric authentication, it’s important to understand what it is. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, biometrics is defined as “the measurement and analysis of unique physical or behavioral characteristics (such as fingerprint or voice patterns) especially as a means of verifying personal identity.” The final portion of that quote is the basis of biometric authentication.
To find an everyday example of biometric authentication, you may not need to look any further than the smartphone in your pocket. Every time you unlock the screen using your voice, fingerprint, or face, your phone is leveraging biometrics to use your body as a password. According to ProtonMail, more advanced systems may also look at everything from the pattern of your iris to the way you walk as a way to guarantee that you are, actually, you.
As a security measure, the biggest benefit of biometric authentication is likely how hard it is to fake and that it can’t be guessed like a password can. A blog post made by Mitek Systems lists “high security and assurance” as the technology’s most positive attribute. The post goes on to explain that authentication usually breaks down into three categories. The first is something you know, like a typical password. The second is something you have in your possession, like a physical key. The third is something you are. Biometric authentication encapsulates all three.
The technology’s strengths go beyond security, though. It offers convenience to users who don’t feel like typing out a potentially long password every time they open their phones or log into their financial accounts — although TransUnion suggests that it should still be paired with a strong pin or password. ProtonMail also references Delta Air Lines, which “offers an optional biometric check-in process to their fliers from curb to gate, saving passengers nine minutes per flight.”
While biometric authentication has more than its fair share of appealing qualities, it also has a decent number of unappealing ones. One of the most prominent is the issue of privacy, since, according to ProtonMail, “when biometrics are stored server-side, particularly in jurisdictions subject to surveillance and secret warrants,” you may be at risk for “potential tracking by government authorities.” It’s also possible to permanently lose access to your data if your biometrics change or become corrupted. It’s easy to reset a password or pin but impossible to replace a fingerprint.
There’s also some question about the technology’s overall accuracy. According to Mitek systems, “most common biometric authentication methods rely on partial information to authenticate a user’s identity.” So, while you may have scanned your whole fingerprint while setting up your device, “future biometric authentication of the fingerprint will only use parts of the prints to verify identity so it’s faster and quicker.”
A team from New York University revealed a vulnerability in this system when they designed an AI that “was able to fraudulently crack fingerprint authentication at a success rate of 20% by matching similarities of partial prints to the full biometric data.”
Other potential problems include the security of the servers on which your data is stored, the costs associated with paying developers to program these immensely complex systems, and the need to train consumers on how to use more advanced versions of biometric authentication. Plus, the technology can be biased towards certain individuals, including those who are physically limited in such a way that prevents them from providing input.
Biometric authentication may not be perfect, but most new technologies come with a few caveats. Armed with this information, you can make a more informed decision about whether to include it in your personal or professional life.