Biometric security systems: a guide to devices, fingerprint scanners and facial recognition access control


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IFSEC Insider, formerly IFSEC Global, is the leading online community and news platform for security and fire safety professionals.
August 12, 2020


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The 101 on the use of biometric security systems and biometric access control in the security industry, including facial recognition, fingerprint scanners and more.


Waiting patiently in line to use the cash machine and then forgetting your PIN number as you finally reach the front of the queue: a frustrating but fairly universal experience.

However, everyday most of us have to identify ourselves on numerous occasions – be it entering a code on a keypad to enter the workplace, a password to log onto our computer or a pin number to access cash from the bank.

In years gone by, we may have cryptically recorded passwords or PIN numbers in the contacts section of our diary or address books. But in a world that is going paperless, more advanced methods of identifying individuals and verifying who they are have had to be developed. This is particularly the case with the growing threats of global terror, cyber hacking and the sophisticated methods of organised crime.

It is here that biometric security has come into its own as the most sophisticated technology for authentication, verification and identification purposes. What a few years ago may have seemed like Hollywood fantasy is increasingly becoming reality with the technology allowing shoppers to verify their online transaction using fingerprint biometrics or banks introducing voice recognition software to allow customers to access their internet account.

What is biometric security?

The basic premise of biometric authentication (the term is derived from the Greek word “bio” meaning life and “metric” meaning to measure) is that every person is unique and each individual can be identified by his or her intrinsic or behaviour traits. Biometric technology is able to recognise a person on the basis of the unique features of their face, fingerprint, signature, DNA or iris pattern and then impart a secure and convenient method for authentication purposes.

Biometrics is therefore the measurement and statistical analysis of a person’s physical and behavioural characteristics. For example, voice recognition systems work by measuring the characteristics of a person’s speech as air is expelled through their lungs, across the larynx and out through their nose and mouth.

The speech verification software will compare these characteristics with data already stored on the server and if the two voiceprints are sufficiently similar, the biometric authentication system will then declare it a match.

Evolving technology

While biometric security is a growing industry, it is not a new science. Manual fingerprints recognition studies began as early as the end of the 19th century and the origins of iris recognition dates back to 1936.

However it was during the latter part of the 1980s that major advancements were made, particularly with the application of biometric technology in the security and surveillance industries.

For example, in relation to iris recognition, significant advancements began in the late 1980s with the first algorithm patent issued in 1994 for automated iris recognition.  Today, airports and border controls will use fingerprints, iris scanning or facial characteristics on record first as a reference point when a suspected or suspicious person tries to cross security. Fast computers can then use established algorithms to cycle quickly through a vast collection of data to see if a positive match is made.


The early to mid-2010s saw the development of biometric technology in the banking, retail and mobile phone sectors. Apple’s 5s smartphone, released in 2013, introduced fingerprint scan as a method of biometric identification to the masses and in 2016, HSBC announced it was launching voice recognition and touch security services in the UK for up to 15 million of its banking customers. Other banks soon followed, and now it is common practice to use fingerprint recognition to access mobile banking services, rather than typing in a manual PIN code.

Facial recognition followed shortly after the use of fingerprints to access mobiles – Samsung’s Galaxy S8 was one of the first major devices to feature the software in 2018. While this was initially utilised back in 2011 by the Galaxy Nexus, it was considered too much of a ‘gimmick’ and unreliable, which demonstrates how far the technology has come in such a short space of time.

Financial institutions and banks have been another sector to rapidly utilise the technology as part of their security solution. In a survey run by IDEX Biometrics, it was found that 79% of 16-24 year-olds believe that “banks should do more to protect their customers from fraud,” and over half expected biometrics to be the primary method for payment on debit and credit card transactions, demonstrating why the company believes that biometrics is key to the future of banking security.

During this time, organisations have adopted biometrics technology for security in varying degrees – but most commonly in their access control systems. Fingerprint scanners and face recognition software is being utilised more readily to ensure a ‘frictionless’ process for employees to enter and exit a building. With cyber criminals finding it easier than ever to hack into more traditional systems and duplicate card credentials, and fewer security staff needed to check ID badges, there are myriad security benefits for both facilities managers and end users.

The travel sector, too has utilised it increasingly. In 2017, The Independent reported how new customs technology will make security queues a thing of the past, thanks to new ‘airport biometrics’. Airports are aiming to soon have an ‘all-biometric airport’, where passengers are able to proceed from terminal to cabin without ever having to exhibit travel documents, with security systems able to match between face recognition characteristics and passports.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, biometric recognition for access control is likely to become even more sought after. A number of companies in the sector, including Paxton, HID Global, Assa Abloy have all highlighted new or evolving technologies in this sphere – all designed to ensure a ‘frictionless’ and touchless entry method into buildings and venues. Proxyclick’s CEO, Gregory Blondeau, described the company’s Touchless Check-In solution as “a natural extension of our efforts to help companies worldwide provide a safe return to work for their employees.” Clearly, reducing the number of contact points in a building is set to become a necessary biosecure measure, and a biometric system will play a vital role in this process.

How does biometrics compare to other access authentication technologies?

The obvious advantage of biometric security system compared to more conventional or traditional authentication methods, such as personal ID cards, magnetic cards, keys or passwords, is that it is intrinsically linked to an individual person and therefore not easily compromised through theft, collusion or loss.

Most biometric systems are easy to use and this simplifies user management resulting in cost savings to the relevant supplier or industry.  Users do not need to remember passwords or PIN numbers and user accounts cannot be shared. If improved reliability or security is needed, it is possible to use a combination of one or more biometric technologies such as fingerprint recognition, facial recognition and speaker recognition.

However it needs to be remembered that not all biometric technologies will suit all users, which could be a hurdle in some sectors because user co-operation is usually required. The cost of setting up new biometric systems can be significant, particularly where sophisticated software is introduced.

But biometric systems, while offering some compelling advantages over older technologies, are far from infallible. At the Mobile world Congress in February 2016, President of Chinese mobile security firm Vkansee, Jason Chaikin, fooled the iPhone’s fingerprint scanner, Touch ID, with play-doh, the children’s modelling clay. And, in 2017, the BBC demonstrated how one of its reporters and his twin was able to fool HSBC’s voice recognition software, which allowed the access of balances and recent transactions.

Privacy concerns will also need to be addressed and no system, however technologically advanced, will be 100% foolproof. David Balaban, founder of Privacy PC, recently highlighted to IFSEC Global four major drawbacks of biometric authentication:

  1. Biometric authentication details cannot be invalidated remotely if something goes wrong
  2. The scourge of master fingerprints fooling popular smart devices
  3. Biometrics are unchangeable, making any replicas extremely easy to use
  4. Software flaws

You can read the full article, here. 

Rates of adoption and innovations in the pipeline

The global biometric market is booming and expanding at an unprecedented rate. It is estimated that the global biometrics market will exceed US$ 24.8bn by 2021. North America has previously dominated the global biometric market. In 2019, a report from global research company, IHS Markit (now Omdia), found that the fastest growing reader type, not including Bluetooth readers, in the access control market was biometrics with a predicted 10.5% CAGR in the EMEA region between 2018 and 2023. Though its use is more constrained to certain sub-regions and vertical markets because the technology is generally considered relatively expensive, and in competition with mobile access technology, amongst other innovations. Biometric data protection is also a concern for many, in relation to the unauthorised sharing of an individual’s biometric information..

The increased use of biometrics in ecommerce, internet banking, cloud computing systems and smartphones integrated with biometric technology are some of the major factors driving demand for the industry. It is estimated that by 2036, people living in London will not use notes or coins at all and that all monetary transactions will be done using contactless cards and apps enhanced by biometric technology.

In 2015, it was reported that biometrics is on the verge of wider adoption in a story about the launch of Videx’s B100 reader for schools, small offices and residential buildings.

However, not everyone thinks that biometrics spell the end for PIN entry or the traditional plastic access card or key fob. Scott Lindley, President of Farpointe Data, has argued that despite biometrics, people will still be using cards for many years to come.

Governments and security services are also continually looking to apply new biometric technologies to increase security by assisting in identifying terrorists, known criminals or other suspicious individuals. The refugee crisis has also propelled the use of biometric technology for humanitarian purposes for those fleeing their country of origin with no ID documentation.

In Jordan, a biometrics-backed project launched by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is using an iris recognition system linked to bank ATMs to create an innovative aid distribution network. The technology allows vital monthly cash payments to be made to displaced refugees. And, across the aviation sector, there is continued investment in the idea of ‘all-biometric airports’.

Biometric technology may not be new but its application is becoming more and more widespread in everyday life and increasingly sophisticated when used as part of security and surveillance systems.

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November 3, 2016 5:20 am

really worrying that so many people are so tragically misinformed.  Biometrics should not be activated where you need
to be security-conscious.
It is known
that the authentication by biometrics comes with poorer security than
PIN/password-only authentication.  The following video explains how biomerics makes a backdoor to password-protected

Erica M. Denham
Erica M. Denham
November 13, 2017 3:36 pm

According to ios application development specialists, even with such a system you should use two-three step verification system in order to save your data. Why so? Because even BSS can be fooled and it’s easier to do than with password or PIN. Again, your unique fingerprint or retina is not the best way to secure data. This system still has a lot of things to work on.

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December 21, 2020 11:38 am

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