While automated biometric authentication solutions are relatively recent advancements, the desire to identify others by physical attributes is an innate human instinct. We’ve been using faces, voices and gait to distinguish between those we know and those we don’t since our earliest recorded history.

From this, to how our physicality interacts with technology today is an impressive journey.

Biometrics is considered one of the strongest options among existing user authentication techniques we have today due to its six main characteristics: universality, uniqueness, collectability, permanence, acceptability and circumvention.

But why has biometrics’ utility as an authenticator exploded in popularity in the last 10-15 years? And why the rise of multimodal systems using two or more biometric systems?

Why Do We Need Biometric Authentication?

Look no further than your pocket – the proliferation of mobile devices is one of the key drivers of the need for biometric authentication.

By the end of 2017, over 1.9 billion biometric mobile devices will be in use, and that this will grow to 5.5 billion devices by 2022, when 98 percent of all smartphones will have biometric capabilities.
Acuity Market Intelligence, 2017

As customers become more familiar and more expecting of digital services that allow them to buy travel tickets, pay bills, stream media, post on social networks and order groceries via websites and apps, there is a greater need to protect our digital world.

As our lives become more digitally connected, biometrics could be one of the best ways to protect our sensitive data, devices and systems, and research suggests that end consumer appetite is already there.

Apple’s TouchID has been instrumental in bringing biometric authentication to a mainstream user base, revealing recently that the average iPhone user unlocks device 80 times per day with 89% using Touch ID to do so.

86 percent of consumers are interested in using biometrics to verify identity or to make payments, and more than 65 percent of consumers are already familiar with biometrics
AYTM Market Research for Visa

A Short History of Biometric Authentication

Biometrics as a means of identification has had an interesting evolution – here are just a few highlights:

  • 1858 – a British administrator working for the Civil Service of India, Sir William Herschel, used handprints on the back of worker contracts as a means of individual identification come payday.
  • 1870 – Alphonse Bertillon develops a method for identifying alleged criminals based on their physical measurements, and was also the inventor of the mugshot. (The system later lost popularity when its scientific basis was debunked.)
  • 1892 – Sir Francis Galton pioneers a classification system for the identification of fingerprints, the details of which are still in use today.
  • 1903 – New York state prison systems formally adopt the method of using fingerprints to identify criminals.
  • 1976 – Development of first prototype system for speaker recognition in the US, tested partly by the US Air Force.
  • 1977 – The concept of utilising an individual’s heart trace (ECG) is explored in technical military research.
  • 1990 – The inadvertent realisation of ECG as being a unique biometric trait was realised in studies including a study of over 900 patients at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
  • 1992 – Facial detection pioneered, making a real time facial recognition a possibility.
  • 2013 – Apple launches TouchID, a fingerprint based authenticator on devices including iPhone 5S, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, the iPad Air 2, and the iPad Mini 3.
  • 2017 – Apple launches FaceID, touted to replace TouchID.

Your Heart is Key

Biometrics are not a silver bullet, however.

First generation biometrics including fingerprint, voice and iris recognition have already been shown to be vulnerable to harvesting or spoofing attacks, where systems have been tricked into verifying the wrong user.

The risks of having biometric credentials compromised are clearly higher than forgetting a password. Passwords and PINs can be easily reset – not so with fingerprints or iris patterns. As more organisations deploy biometric solutions to protect sensitive systems, information and even physical spaces, the fallout of a spoof attack could be catastrophic – think of restricted access areas in an airport, school or hospital.


The next generation of biometric authentication is already here, moving beyond external biometrics that can be harvested, with ECG (electrocardiogram) authentication.

As an internal biometric, your heartbeat offers inherent security.

An individual’s ECG produces an electric waveform different to another (inter-variability), like a fingerprint. Each heartbeat also forms a different signal (intra-variability). Together, a particular pattern is formed. If an exact match of this pattern is detected, this indicates a spoofing attempt.

Mitigating Digital Risk with Multimodal Biometrics

No one solution can claim to be hackproof but taking a multimodal approach, using two or more biometric identifiers for positive identification, could be the way forward.

The benefits of such an approach include:

  • Greater accuracy and reduced risk of false positives
  • Improved recognition rates
  • Stronger security with less chance of breaches
  • The use of a metric with liveness detection such as ECG offers improved security
  • End-user trust – a stronger multimodal solution encourages widescale adoption

Securing Our Future

Biometric authentication is facilitating innovation in border control, national ID, high-security physical access control, law enforcement and financial services, helping organisations deliver connected services and a seamless experience without any interruptive security measures.

Combining a powerful internal metric like ECG authentication with a secondary modal could offer us the closest thing we can have to complete digital security.

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