Do fingerprints age?

Why age is not just a number when it comes to fingerprint biometrics

Senior Vice President, IDEX Biometrics

Author Bio ▼

David Orme is the Senior Vice President at IDEX Biometrics ASA. Holding a BA Honours in Management Studies, Orme is a member of the UK institute of Directors and has a strong track record in sales, marketing and business development within the payments industry.
August 30, 2019

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More of our personal information is stored online and on digital devices than ever before.

In order for our digital identities to remain protected, we should ideally update our passwords at least every 90 days – as recommended by universal cybersecurity advice. The natural result of this is swiftly- created passwords that are often quickly forgotten or written down for others to potentially discover.

By using biometric data instead, however, we have a more timeless key for devices and the personal information they store, without the annoyance of password updates. But as our bodies change with age, what effect does this have on our biometric DNA?

This situation was a recent reality for Queen guitarist, Brian May. Now 71, he was recently stopped at passport control when facial recognition technology failed to recognise his grey hair, which no longer matched the famous dark curls seen in his passport photograph, and tried to stop entry.

If contact between dry skin and scanners is not firm, it could increase the rate of ‘false rejects’

So, although using our physical make-up for authentication is undeniably more stable than a traditional password, it is evident that getting older can still influence the accuracy of our biometric data.

As we age our physiology naturally changes: hair becomes greyer, the pitch of our voices can change over time becoming deeper or unsteady, faces change shape as we lose skin elasticity, and even irises can be affected by optical diseases such as cataracts or glaucoma. Of course, as children grow up, their faces also change rapidly between birth and adulthood, affecting facial recognition more frequently than in adults.

All of those are clear, noticeable changes that we can see, or hear happening.

But do our fingerprints, which we know are unique to us, ever change?

Ageing at our fingerprints

In essence, no. Our fingerprints are determined before birth, at roughly 24 weeks, and the ridge pattern that develops on our skin is one of the last things to disappear on our bodies after we pass away.

In fact, a study into fingerprint recognition found that although there is a slight degradation in perfect match quality to our fingerprints as we get older, that difference is negligible.

This makes our fingerprints the most secure and stable method of biometric authentication to combat ageing physical features. However, we also know that the process of ageing can cause us to lose skin elasticity over time, with our fingertips becoming less flexible and more rigid.

This can have an effect on the fingerprint biometric scanning process if the contact between dry skin and scanners is not firm, which could possibly lead to and increase the rate of ‘false rejects’ during the authentication process.

Therefore, to offset any degradation in scanning quality that may occur due to ageing, fingerprint biometric authentication devices should employ larger sensors and advanced matching algorithms.

All-inclusive authentication

While many producers are attempting to reduce the size of scanners in their devices to save on cost, using a larger fingerprint sensor will ensure authentication devices capture a greater surface area and a larger proportion of biometric data, balancing out any loss in data due to ageing fingerprints.

It’s also important to test devices and sensors on a wide range of fingerprints covering users of all ages, hand sizes, genders, and ethnic groups, so that authentication devices can quickly and accurately respond to all users.

With these advances in modern sensors and detailed user testing, along with advanced algorithms, companies can ensure they are well equipped to deal with the challenges surrounding any ageing of a fingerprint.

The importance of seamless biometric scanning

In our ‘have it now’ era, it is essential that authentication technology is simple to use and accessible to all, especially as friction is the number one barrier to profitability today. Take Amazon’s and Uber’s business models for example. Their frictionless customer journeys have seen them thrive in a highly competitive global marketplace, so that we now expect that ease of technology in all aspects of our lives.

To make sure consumer adoption of fingerprint biometric technology is as fast and pervasive as that of Amazon and Uber, biometric innovators need to make sure there are no obstacles because of ageing physical data in the journey. To be adopted by all, the fingerprint authentication process needs to be considered as easy as clicking ‘buy now’ on an e-commerce site or ordering a taxi in two taps.

To make this happen, it is vital for manufacturers of biometric technology to remember the impact ageing can have on physical data as they incorporate new innovative authentication measures into devices. After all, getting older does not stop users from wanting a smooth and uninterrupted experience, whether that be while paying for goods or heading through passport control.

To keep biometric authentication universally accessible to all, irrespective of age, it is paramount that biometric providers continue to pioneer the latest in identification technology and processes. This can best be achieved through continual testing and development, which will help to guarantee that fingerprint scanning procedures mature along with their consumers.

Adapting to the aging process is essential to pave the way for the introduction of fingerprint biometric payments on a global scale.

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