What Are Biometrics and How Do They Work?

  • AS Team
  • Mar 30, 2022
What Are Biometrics and How Do They Work? title banner

Biometrics is set to be one of the hottest new security features as we head into the new future of data security


Yet it’s very common to worry about the risks of such data-collection methods of security, as explained in ExpressVPN’s research on biometrics. 


From airport body scanners to the very posts you make on social media, not thinking about who is looking, biometrics can be a risky field to navigate. Let’s take a look.



What are Biometrics?


Biometrics are often sold as an advanced way to add layers to security systems. They’re a type of identification that looks foolproof on paper, but carries many risks as a stand-alone authentication method. 


Traditional security hinges greatly on the password system, but we’ve seen how easily that can fail, both from smart modern cybercrimes and data mining and from simple human weaknesses. Biometrics were developed to add a ‘living ID’ to our security systems, hinging on aspects of our body or how we act. In short, using your physical characteristics as a way to identify yourself.

There’s many types of biometrics, but two of the simplest you will have encountered are fingerprint scans and facial recognition.


How do Biometrics Work


More strictly speaking, biometrics is broken down into three key fields:

  • Behavioral biometrics: Uses patterns in how you do things, like walk or talk, to identify you.

  • Biological biometrics: Using something unshakeable at DNA level to identify you.

  • Morphological biometrics: These use traits you have, like your fingerprints, to identify you.


As you can already see, these are, indeed, powerful ways to identify yourself. Most physical and behavioral characteristics we have are very individualized, difficult to change or emulate, and tough to fake. 


Even identical twins can be very different at these levels. In theory, it’s a good way to augment traditional security systems and restrict access to data. 


The data is captured and stored by hardware known as biometric scanners. These compare the provided data with stored data to allow system access.

However, these kinds of identifiers cannot be determined at the point of use. This means, in order to work at all, biometric data - this deeply personal facet of who you are- must be stored by the security system in order to be compared with your physical presence when you attempt to use the system. 


Of course, this data is supposed to be safely encrypted and stored away by the system, but we know how easily data breaches can occur. Plus, data for marketing is becoming an increased focus. For the systems, it’s both convenient to use and difficult to steal - but that hinges on their good security and behavior. It’s not always as much of a win-win for you as presented. 


Common Examples of Biometric Technology (And How They Are Used)


The first thing that jumped to your mind reading this was likely fingerprint scanners. These have become increasingly common in a variety of security settings, from your bank to your job site. 


This is already data commonly stored by governmental institutions and linked to a variety of our legal documents, so fingerprint scanning in itself can be an innocuous use of your personal data for security purposes. You probably have one on your phone right now! 


However, as the tech has advanced, you will have seen other, more intrusive, forms become common. As the intrusion mounts, so does the risk to your very personal data. Other common, more intrusive, biometric tech includes:


  • Iris readers

  • Heart-rate sensors

  • Facial recognition

  • Voice recognition

  • DNA collection

  • Palm scanners

  • Gait and typing pattern recognition


As technology develops, we will see even more advanced- and intrusive- biometrics arise.


Security Risks in Biometric Data


When security hinges on your literal body and most personal characteristics, it’s inevitable that risks follow. While biometrics can be convenient to companies, they place you at risk of the following:

  • Inability to roll back compromised data: A stolen password can be replaced. What do you do when it’s your fingerprints or face that’s stolen, however? Once compromised, this data remains compromised forever.


  • Increased surveillance and personal intrusion: You have now become a commodity to companies. We’ve already seen increased street camera surveillance. Your movements and personal freedoms can easily be tracked, and you don’t have control over who accesses that data, who it is sold to, and other key risk factors.


  • False Identification: No system is perfect, yet it has now placed your most intimate data at the forefront of so-called security solutions. What happens when a mistaken read allows false identification by law enforcement, or your company takes action against you based on compromised or misinterpreted data? These systems are perfected by recognizing male bodies and pale skins, so this risk of false positives is increased for huge swathes of the population, often already at-risk in society.


Previously mentioned, ExpressVPN's research on the matter has already uncovered cases of false criminal identification based on misused facial recognition. How far dare you go in a world where your own body is a risky system?


Protecting Yourself from Biometric Intrusion


This doesn’t mean we need to disregard biometrics entirely- they do offer a unique chance to enhance security without added inconvenience. However, it falls on the individual to make sure it is not being misused. Here’s a few ways to keep yourself safe from a world with biometric security layers:

  • Be careful what you share: Don’t just sign up without thought. Ask yourself if you trust the company, if they need this level of security, and so on. You might be happy with your bank having your fingerprints, but the local grocer certainly doesn’t need it!

  • Opt-out with power: Where possible, opt-out. Schools, airports, and other insecure organizations don’t need this power over you. Save it for where it matters most, and where you are comfortable.

  • Stay multifactorial: Don’t let biometrics be the only identifier in place for security. It must be part of multi-step, integrated processes that work for you as well as the gathering company.

  • Use tools: Tools like a VPN can go a long way to preventing third-parties from accessing your data and gathering information about you.


As you can see, biometrics is a powerful, but potentially dangerous, way to enhance security. 


Sensibly used, it has the potential to help increase data security overall, but it must always be done so that both parties benefit, not in a one-sided arrangement you cannot control. With these tips, however, you can stay safer in a world with biometric identification systems in place.

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