Are Passwords And PINs History? Biometrics Are Closer Than You Think

Maria Makedonas tries out an iris scan at the offices of biometrics firm Argus Global.A

Lost your ATM card or can’t remember the PIN? Don’t worry, your index finger, face or voice may soon be all you need to access bank accounts, emails, and even the security gates at work.

While many Australians may think biometrics are the stuff of science-fiction (think Minority Report, where citizens were constantly tracked via retina scans), they are already an integral part of our prisons and immigration system, and are quickly becoming a convenient way to pay for things, thanks to smartphone technology.

Use of biometrics is increasing and banks are leading the way. A spokeswoman for ANZ Bank said it is testing voice recognition “as a way of identifying customers over the phone or as a two-factor authentication when making large transactions”.

Opener: Apple introduced "Touch ID" fingerprint recognition technology to its iPhone in 2013.Opener: Apple introduced “Touch ID” fingerprint recognition technology to its iPhone in 2013. Photo: Reuters

“We are also looking into the use of additional forms of biometrics such as fingerprint and eye retina scanners, as an additional security measure at ATMs.”

Biometrics is a modern word for something discovered nearly two hundred years ago: fingerprints. Of course these days it involves a lot more than stamp pads. The technology is now available to collect, store, and recognise minute details about a person’s face, ears, veins, posture, typing style, and gait, with researchers working on heartbeats and brain signal biometrics.

So does this mean you can soon walk up to an ATM and have it instantly recognise you, greet you by name, and ask if you want the usual withdrawal? Well, maybe if the technology gets cheap enough.

Chris Ellison scans his passport: Customs launched the SmartGate self-processing system for Australian International passengers in 2005.Chris Ellison scans his passport: Customs launched the SmartGate self-processing system for Australian International passengers in 2005. Photo: Nicole Emanue

High quality three-dimensional facial recognition is still too expensive for a national roll out, but banks could use more affordable two-dimensional technology that takes an image at the ATM and matches it against customer records, according to sales manager at Argus Global, Blair Crawford.

Argus already sells biometric technology in Australia, such as fingerprint security to childcare centres that allows only staff, parents and approved visitors to enter. There is a lot of potential for the technology in Australia, he says, such as health insurers using face and voice recognition to stop fraudsters taking out multiple policies.

The use of biometrics will increase “without a doubt” in coming years, according to technology futurist Shara Evans, chief executive of Market Clarity. The tax office started using voice recognition technology last year and Australian banks already offer fingerprint access to smartphone apps.

Illustration: Matt Golding.Illustration: Matt Golding.

The biggest benefit to consumers will be getting rid of passwords, Evans says, although biometrics will probably be used in conjunction with other security questions, such as being asked to say your first pet’s name or mother’s maiden name out loud. And businesses can use biometrics to protect information, such as requiring fingerprint access to databases.

One downside is that our bodies constantly change. Evans says she always has trouble with the SmartGates​ at the airport because her passport photo was taken when she had a different hair style. Injuries, cosmetic surgery and ageing could alter your appearance enough to make access difficult.

Westpac was the first Australian bank to introduce fingerprint access on its smartphone app earlier this year, following a trial with St George customers. Along with Commonwealth Bank, these apps allow customers to withdraw cash from an ATM without swiping a card. While it is already possible to leave the house without your wallet and still get access to money, it may soon be possible to go shopping with nothing but your smartphone and fingerprint.

Apple’s new Pay system effectively turns a smartphone into a credit card once it gets fingerprint authorisation is rumoured to be coming to Australia later this year.

It was Apple’s inclusion of finger-print reading technology on the iPhone 5S that opened up biometrics for all businesses, according Crawford.

“Societal acceptance has gone through the roof,” Crawford says, “and that allowed all these companies to start seeing the benefit for their consumers.”

Meanwhile, Chinese-owned text and photo communication app WeChat recently released voice recognition security. Instead of tapping in a numerical code users are asked to read off a sequence of numbers.

The Australian government has been using biometric security for its defence and intelligence personnel for years – just like the spy movies – and passport holders have been using the photo-recognition machines known as SmartGates​ at international airports since 2005.

The Australian government also collects biometrics in 25 countries from people applying for visas, including fingerprints and photos. Customs officers then test the biometrics when people arrive in Australia to confirm it is the same person who applied for the visa in their home country.

This has already led to border staff detecting “persons of national security concern, persons with undisclosed criminal records, undeclared adverse immigration histories and fraudulent identities” when they otherwise would not have, according to a Department of Immigration and Border Protection spokeswoman.

And if you have visited a prison recently, you will know that many around Australia now capture and store iris scans and fingerprints as additional security measures – double-checking the same person leaves as came in. And since late 2011 Queensland’s Corrective Services has been using biometric kiosks at police stations where low-risk parolees check in once a month, provide a fingerprint and receive a receipt of their visit.

So while some people have decided to implant computer chips into their hands to get the benefits of technology, in a few years your hands may be enough on their own.

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