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Fingerprint readers are dead – aren’t they?

biometric fingerprint data

By Roberto Wolfer, co-founder of Jenetric

No doubt, the Corona pandemic, with all its implications, challenges the biometrics industry to a considerable extent. Of course, as in any other industry, economics, supply chains, physical conferencing and working from home are the obvious implications. However, there is a more important question to answer: Will this pandemic change the way biometrics, and fingerprint scanners in particular, are used in the future?

If there was one buzzword that characterized the last 11 months in the biometrics community, it was “Touchless.” Whereas in the pre-pandemic era, the use of biometrics was focused on “Seamless,” today almost every conference and webinar focuses on the use of biometrics in a “Touchless” approach. From April 2020 to the present, there have been about 25 press releases from academia, industry or the media related to touchless biometrics. Suddenly, and for understandable reasons, facial, iris and voice biometrics have become much more relevant.

Almost one year ago the death of fingerprint scanners was predicted. Low-end single-finger readers, which are mostly used for authentication, will fall off the cliff due to the pandemic. According to the forecast, within 2-3 years, four-finger readers used for more sophisticated law enforcement and border control applications will be replaced by smartphones and their contactless biometric capabilities (fingerprint or other modalities). Along the way to this transition, more stringent disinfection solutions and antimicrobial measures will be applied to these four-finger readers.

Ten months after the death of fingerprint readers was predicted, it’s time for an interim update. Apple first introduced Face ID with the iPhone X in 2017 for a variety of reasons, but certainly not for pandemic or sanitary reasons.  Very soon, other smartphone manufacturers followed this move from finger to face.

Contactless fingerprint capture via the phone’s camera has been around for a while, and there were and are pilot studies ongoing. Here, hygienic concerns are not the driver for this approach, but rather the convenience of using the phone instead of a separate fingerprint reader. Compared to a report published seven years ago, progress in contactless fingerprint solutions has been reported in 2020. Whether considering more advanced touchless fingerprint readers or smartphones, images taken with most readers today do not represent a 3-dimensional structure of the ridges but rather a 2D image. This approach has been shown to cause issues in accurate fingerprint capture due to distortion, deformation of the finger’s skin, low contrast and in correcting the distance between the finger and the camera.  Therefore, efforts in research on touchless fingerprint capture technologies are still needed before contactless fingerprints are fully accepted for more advanced fingerprint applications by certification bodies or governments.

Not surprisingly, all manufacturers of touch-based fingerprint readers provided protocols and instructions for sanitizing their products. Although the risk of infection by touching a surface is much lower than from airborne transmission, regular disinfection helps to reduce the risk of infection even further. In real life, disinfecting is inconsistent (not following the rules, lack of disinfectant availability, etc.) and therefore sophisticated solutions beyond regular disinfection, such as antimicrobial coatings or disinfection by UV for fingerprint readers, were introduced. Surely more smart solutions can be expected in the coming months.

Are fingerprint readers dead?  

The pandemic has clearly focused attention on hygiene and fingerprints, much more than in previous years. However, whether customers are ready to switch from touch-based to contactless solutions, or even replace fingerprints with other modalities, has yet to be answered. Many parameters other than just hygienic concerns, such as cost, ease of use, legislation, and backward compatibility to existing data sets or accepted standards determine the penetration of new technologies. Finally, at this point it is not clear how long the pandemic will continue to affect the biometrics industry in the near to long term. So maybe after “Seamless” and “Touchless” the next big thing will be “Faceless”, because facial masks will certainly be around for quite a while.

About the author

Roberto Wolfer is co-founder of Jenetric. In his position as CEO, he has been responsible for shaping the product strategy since 2014, based on years of knowledge of industry requirements. With his hand on the pulse of the biometrics industry, his responsibilities include leading a successful global market placement.

Roberto Wolfer has more than 20 years leadership experience in business development and product management. The last 13 years he has been working in the biometrics industry. Before he had several roles in the medical diagnostics industry. Roberto has an engineering degree in medical technology and an additional qualification in Intellectual Property.

DISCLAIMER: Biometric Update’s Industry Insights are submitted content. The views expressed in this post are that of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of Biometric Update.

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