Personal identification is a process to uniquely distinguish a person from others. There are many methods of personal identifications and traditionally a document or card, containing personally Identifiable Information (PII) of an individual is used for this purpose. This identity card / document, can presented as a proof of identity when required. These cards or documents are usually allotted by government, government authorized bodies, institutions or organizations and contain specifics required to uniquely identify a person. Typically, information like Name, Date of Birth, Nationality, Signature, Date of Expiry, Unique Identity Number or Document Number in government records and Name of the issuing department are contained in the identity document. Some security features may be also be employed, like governments or department’s seal or hologram, to make it look authentic.
Government, organizations and institutions issuing their own identity cards make the whole identity process redundant and a person has to carry many cards to prove his or her identity. Even the government’s own departments may issues different cards to prove identity at different fronts, for example: social security card, driver’s licence, etc.
Card or document based identity system has been serving its purpose for long and proved efficient until recently. With the advancement of technology and high quality printing getting cheaper, people started counterfeiting these personal ID cards to gain unauthorized access or benefits. The government and institutions did take countermeasures like laminated cards, plastic cards and 3D holograms to prevent the duplication of IDs, but with technology advancing at rapid pace and getting cheaper, countermeasures were also duplicated. A need of stronger countermeasures was felt to cease piracy of ID cards so the government and other institutions decided to go for electronic ID cards. Electronic ID cards have a magnetic strip or chip on a plastic card and it stored identity and other information related to the cardholder. These cards also have information printed on it to quickly identify the person, and electronic information could be accessed to verify it. Electronic cards were seen as the answer to ID counterfeiting but again, they didn’t address the basic problem: How to establish that card belongs to the bearer? A similar looking face, age and knowledge of information certain information could dodge the authorities.
Identity system based on fingerprints
Identity system based on card or document contains information that uses multiple fields to be unique, like combination of name, father’s name, date of birth, etc. Despite this uniqueness, this data is just a piece of information that could be forged by anyone. Electronic IDs were also no different, they just stored information electronically rather than on a piece of paper, the personally identifiable information remained unchanged. Identity system based on biometric information of a person can be the answer to all shortcomings associated with traditional identity system. Biometric information like fingerprints is unique to an individual, so unique that even twins don’t have same fingerprint. This unique trait is designed by nature and is scientifically measurable to uniquely identify a person. This trait can be used to work as unique identity, an identity that comes with birth and stays till death. Fingerprints do not change with age; they can only grow larger with physical growth. Using fingerprints as a unique key to identification is best suited in electronic cards, on printed IDs it would not be feasible to verify unless that card’s information is verifiable online by some unique text or number. Current biometric devices use several techniques to know that the fingerprint being scanned belong to a living person, and not to a photo or other counterfeiting methods.
Real world applications of fingerprint based ID
Nation Identity Card (also known as “e-ID”) issued by the Government of Nigeria is a good example of electronic card that uses fingerprint as authenticator. This card serves not only as personal ID but also has several other functions. It can be used as a payment method, as an ATM card, passport like usage in some countries, for health related information, driver’s licence, for financial information and other government benefits.
This electronic identity card comes with MoC (Match on Card) function. Match on Card feature has ability to verify fingerprint right on card when inserted in a secure terminal or electronic ID card reader. Fingerprint of a person is stored right on chip in a secure format which cannot be manipulated. Multiple failed attempts of verification disable the card as a security measure.
Another example comes from Government of India’s biometric identity initiative called “Aadhar” which is the largest biometric database in the world. Government of India chose a different way to biometric identity for its citizens.
Aadhar ID card is a paper printed ID card with some personal details and a unique number. This card alone servers no purpose until details are verified from online Aadhar database. For verification, biometrics of the bearer, like retina or fingerprints are scanned and details get verified instantly. This card comes without any special security features as it is only valid when authenticated online, and that part cannot be forged or manipulated. Unlike Nigerian e-ID, India’s Aadhar biometric identity system accesses back-end databases on secure servers to verify fingerprints or other biometrics.
Fingerprints can serve as an authentic way of personal identification that no other method guarantees. No document or ID is required to carry if verification authority has a fingerprint scanner. Fingers can serve as a driving licence, social security card, employment card, pension card or membership card. Fingerprint scanners have become so tiny that they can be attached with mobile phones and other handheld devices and serve as the quickest tool of personal identification. This will save people and authorities from a lot of hassles, paperwork and formalities. In India, after enabling fingerprint based activation for new pre-paid mobile SIM connections, it started taking just 30 minutes to activate a pre-paid SIM, which used to take 24 to 72 hours otherwise. Fingerprint based personal identification also protects from misuse of documents copies, as all personal details can be fetched only when a person puts his finger on scanner knowing the purpose. It is a paperless process so chances of duplication of personal information are next to nil. After considering the effectiveness and authenticity of biometrics; many countries have started issuing biometric passports to its citizens. Biometric passport also has its paper based counterpart, information on which can be authenticated when required.
That day is not far when fingerprints will become the most trusted tool not only for personal identification, but also a key to retrieve healthcare records, financial records, tax information, driving licence information, government benefits, criminal records, social security and immigration status.