Pros and Cons

There are several ways a security system can verify that somebody is an authorized user. Most systems are looking for one or more of the following:

  • What you have
  • What you know
  • Who you are

To get past a "what you have" system, you need some sort of "token," such as an identity card with a magnetic strip. A "what you know" system requires you to enter a password or PIN number. A "who you are" system is actually looking for physical evidence that you are who you say you are -- a specific fingerprint, voice or iris pattern.

"Who you are" systems like fingerprint scanners have a number of advantages over other systems. To name few:

  • Physical attributes are much harder to fake than identity cards.
  • You can't guess a fingerprint pattern like you can guess a password.
  • You can't misplace your fingerprints, irises or voice like you can misplace an access card.
  • You can't forget your fingerprints like you can forget a password.

But, as effective as they are, they certainly aren't infallible, and they do have major disadvantages. Optical scanners can't always distinguish between a picture of a finger and the finger itself, and capacitive scanners can sometimes be fooled by a mold of a person's finger. If somebody did gain access to an authorized user's prints, the person could trick the scanner. In a worst-case scenario, a criminal could even cut off somebody's finger to get past a scanner security system. Some scanners have additional pulse and heat sensors to verify that the finger is alive, rather than a mold or dismembered digit, but even these systems can be fooled by a gelatin print mold over a real finger. (This site explains various ways somebody might trick a scanner.)

To make these security systems more reliable, it's a good idea to combine the biometric analysis with a conventional means of identification, such as a password (in the same way an ATM requires a bank card and a PIN code).

The real problem with biometric security systems is the extent of the damage when somebody does manage to steal the identity information. If you lose your credit card or accidentally tell somebody your secret PIN number, you can always get a new card or change your code. But if somebody steals your fingerprints, you're pretty much out of luck for the rest of your life. You wouldn't be able to use your prints as a form of identification until you were absolutely sure all copies had been destroyed. There's no way to get new prints.

But even with this significant drawback, fingerprint scanners and biometric systems are an excellent means of identification. In the future, they'll most likely become an integral part of most peoples' everyday life, just like keys, ATM cards and passwords are today.

For much more information about fingerprint scanners and other biometric technologies, check out the links on the next page.