September 23, 2017 -
This is a guest post by Kayla Matthews, a biometrics and technology writer.
Since the Internet is foundational to almost every aspect of modern life, we regularly endeavor to make it a safer and more comfortable place to be. A big part of that journey is making our authentication methods — passwords, encryption and biometrics — stronger and more dependable.
But biometrics, in particular, have struggled with adoption and an apparent lack of public trust. With cyberthreats increasingly a top-of-mind concern among business leaders and ordinary citizens, one would expect something as unique as our fingerprints to enjoy a greater degree of trust by now.
But you might be surprised to find reality isn’t that simple.
What the surveys say
Surveys of Internet users almost always yield interesting results. That was the case when Mail.com asked almost 1,200 people whether they favor traditional passwords or biometrics to secure their online accounts. A handy majority — 58 percent — indicated they prefer passwords.
Only 10 percent of respondents indicated a preference for biometrics, while the most damning response came from 26 percent who consider biometrics actively risky. Their skepticism is not entirely unwarranted — some reports suggest all it takes to spoof fingerprint scanners are printouts and only a little bit of effort.
Here’s the funny part: Other studies prove these sentiments to be largely generational.
Visa conducted their own study of millennials about biometrics. A majority indicated they’d be comfortable replacing passwords with biometrics entirely. To be more specific, 62 percent of millennials are interested in using biometrics for payments because “they see it as being secure and convenient and having the ‘cool factor’.”
There are plenty of reasons young people seem more likely to embrace next-generation security measures — and most of them are obvious. Fingerprint scanners have been common on even entry-level Android and iOS smartphones for several years now. Plus, millennials are simply saturated in technology in a way older generations are not.
Still, the generational divide is an interesting one. But personal sentiment is one thing. Are there other reasons why biometrics haven’t caught on very quickly?
From a practicality standpoint, biometrics won’t be able to replace passwords for quite some time — not until the hardware required is more widely available.
Logging into your credit union account on an iPhone is easy enough with your fingerprint, but from a desktop computer, you’ll still need to enter text unless you have a cutting-edge notebook with an integrated fingerprint sensor. The name of the game here is continuity of experience, which is currently possible with simple text input for passwords, but much harder to replicate for biometrics. Simply put, it’s going to take a lot longer for fingerprint scanners to proliferate in personal computers the way they have in smartphones.
In a corporate or industrial setting, investing in next-generation authentication means new equipment and equipment monitoring procedures. Much like how other kinds of equipment and electronics need to be calibrated regularly, so too would biometrics. Security requirements must trump nearly any other consideration when consumer or patient data is the thing being protected.
On a somewhat larger stage, biometrics are seeing strong pushback in places where their integration has felt invasive, forced or simply ill-advised. This was the case in Venezuela, where scanning one’s fingerprint became a prerequisite for tasks as simple as purchasing groceries.
Elsewhere, governments have their eye on biometrics as one potential “solution” for phasing out the human element at border checkpoints, but this application of biometrics is even less likely to gain traction than Venezuela’s, since national security is in the mix.
The more we see these systems abused or misused, the less likely the public will be to trust them. The less they trust next-generation authentication, the more likely they are to use passwords. And since passwords can be hacked, people will choose inevitably easier-to-remember passwords, which kicks the whole cycle off again.
It’s clear we need something better than passwords — that’s the one thing all parties seem to agree on. The way forward might be biometrics, but maybe the biggest holdup right now is how siloed the technology feels on our smartphones. Millions of phone owners use Touch ID and similar technologies on a regular basis, but these are isolated experiences — it doesn’t feel like a ubiquitous, unified and even cultural experience the way passwords do. But if millennials are any judge, this is about to change.
The adjustment period continues
There’s always a period of adjustment where new technologies are concerned. And insofar as biometrics is still a “new” technology, that’s true here as well. Biometrics are as trusted as they are maligned.
And prepare yourself for a fresh round of debate — smartphone makers appear ready to take face identification mainstream with their 2017 and 2018 flagship smartphones.
We’ll have to wait and see if such technology faces the same uphill climb toward acceptance that fingerprint scans have.
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