Mobile Biometrics – undervalued security?

Biometrics aren’t necessarily the first thing we think of when it comes to security. We think of putting locks on our doors, of whether or not we locked our car in the parking garage. At most we set our pets name as a password and add a 123 at the end, and for the average Joe, that’s all that’s necessary.

While that is still the general opinion, and while that may be enough for some, in today’s world security is becoming more and more important. Even mobile devices like phones now come with more and more security features. Nearly every new ‘generation’ of phones, every flagship and every revolutionary model comes with new security features.

Whether we use them is (mostly) up to us, however the features are there and devices will even encourage us to make use of them. Phones will not only let you set passwords or passcodes, there are now even biometric security features. Facial recognition has been around for a little while, but it has improved by leaps and bounds in the past year or two.

In the very beginning it was just a pin or password, then came the 9 dots on which the user could draw a pattern, then came photos that let the user draw a ‘blind’ pattern, voice recognition, facial recognition…

In addition to that, newer generation phones also come with fingerprint scanners. The very first ones that were shipped out didn’t work all that well-they were more of a fun gimmick, rather than a useable addition. However, that is no longer true. Nowadays, the phone will take several scans of the fingerprint in question, and even store several fingerprints at once, so that several people can unlock it, or just the owner with different fingers.

Despite it not being a ‘major’ feature in a phone, the biometric sensors are amazingly accurate, rarely giving false results. Most often the scanner will now be placed in the middle or home button, or occasionally, on the back of the phone. The technology behind it was shrunken down until it hardly even affected weight or handling of the phone-and it is controlled entirely through the phone’s software.

There are also apps that claim that they scan fingerprints if the user places it on the screen of the phone-the ones available through the app stores are, however, fake and only for entertainment purposes. This will usually be displayed in the description. Nevertheless, fingerprint scanners on mobile devices have a future, as do other biometric scans.

While facial recognition can still make mistakes, give wrong positives or worse yet, wrong negatives, the fingerprint scanners are a really neat feature. Now that they have become a reliable measure, many companies that allow their employees to store confidential information on their phones, to protect them. A combination of a fingerprint scanner and a login attempt limiter allow for maximum security.

Biometric security measures are, of course, not limited to mobile phones. Laptops and similar devices like tablets have been secured in the very same way for almost as long as phones have. Speech recognition as well as facial recognition work well on laptops as they have better and better cameras installed, as well as markedly improved software to ensure accuracy.

For companies who aren’t quite happy with ‘just’ biometrics, also use so called smart cards. To be more specific, in order to access certain bits of content, a card reader will be connected to the device, and the corresponding card will need to be inserted and possibly a pin code as well.

This technology is also used by some banks. They’ll give their users a debit or credit card reader. Once it is connected via Bluetooth, the card is inserted and the pin entered. Then, the users can make payments or view information on their banking details. The concept is fairly simple, the card reader checks the inserted card and code and then sends the go-ahead (or not) signal to the device. The same is possible with laptops, and as far as non-mobile devices go, doors, and elevators, as well as anywhere else key-cards and smartcards are in use.

We are all familiar with the concept of these smart-cards, however despite their popularity they inspire very different opinions in their users. Some will swear on them and see them as an essential part of any security set-up, whereas others feel that the physical cards are clunky and the risk of them getting lost isn’t worth the security benefits, or even an outright risk by itself.

However, whether you like them or not, smartcards are out there, and many offices (almost all shared offices) will use them. Their appearance has changed quite a bit since they first came around too. While many are still shaped like credit cards, there are now also smaller variants that can be put on a keychain or the like, to lower the risk of losing them.

They are also usually solid colour, and don’t have any name or address on them. This is so that in case the card gets lost and someone else finds it, they don’t know what building or office the card accesses. That way, while they can’t return it, they also can’t access areas they weren’t supposed to.

There is another are where smartcards and biometrics intersect health care. In several European countries (including France and Austria), insurance cards are given to the insured, either by private insurers or by the state. These cards, shaped like ordinary credit cards, will have a chip (much like a credit card) that allows, when scanned, doctors to access patient records. In some cases it also comes with saved fingerprints or a saved photo for identification purposes, and in order to prevent fraud.

This method is much more convenient for patients as they can simply carry the card in their wallet rather than having to specifically bring identification documents to a doctor (which just isn’t possible in an emergency). This just proves that smart cards can do more than unlock doors. In the United Kingdom, a sports booking company is even developing a pay as you go smartcard for football pitches-the users swipe the card on their way in, swipe again when they leave and get charged for the amount of time they spent there. This technology is still in development however.


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