The Secret History of Identity
In Behind the Biometrics Boom, we’ve looked back at the centuries leading up to today’s proliferation of biometric modalities, exploring how innovators and watershed events have shaped the technology. While it’s illuminating to trace the threads of change that have resulted in today’s biometric ecosystem, predicting the future of biometrics is a different beast entirely—due in no small part to ever-changing attitudes and user habits.
The advent of Apple’s TouchID in 2013 kicked off a mobile arms race for biometrics that saw the mobile market for biometric technology expand rapidly. Biometrics became a fixture of enterprise access control as well. Tired of passwords and PINs and becoming more accustomed to biometric capture devices, businesses and consumers began to turn to biometrics for quick, secure logins. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today the market is filled with biometric options for both enterprise and consumers, including fingerprint, face, and iris-scanning functionality. Yesterday’s sci-fi has become today’s reality. While debates about privacy are a constant companion to biometric advancement, the use of biometrics – especially fingerprint biometrics – has been thoroughly decriminalized and is fast becoming part of everyday life. With this decade’s rapid expansion of biometrics in mind, here are a few ways that bloggers of the future may tell the story of biometrics in the 21st century (that is, if they’re still blogging on Mars):
1) Biometrics began to do more in the 21st century and became incorporated into life-changing technologies.
The 21st century kicked off with a rapid expansion of biometrics. The events of September 11th made it a foundational technology for security, while the mobile boom of the 2010s saw a rapid rise in consumer adoption. In the 20s and 30s, biometrics-as-access-control became more than just a lock-and-key paradigm. Integrated with technology to monitor vitals, behavior, and personal preferences, biometrics began to control comfort settings in consumer technology like cars and mattresses, and even served to signal identities and activate presets within dynamic indoor spaces, which would adapt in response to the individual present.
Biometrics also began to optimize the medical field in countries all over the world in the 20s and 30s, anchoring health records to a unique identity and facilitating the creation of a comprehensive record of all health information throughout a patient’s lifetime. With fewer patient identification errors and a fuller medical history for each patient, treatment outcomes improved. Medical imaging devices and other diagnostic tools were augmented with automatic comparison functionality using biometrics. The ability to compare diagnostic data from the same patient improved diagnosis and gave valuable insights to providers. The increased data visibility afforded by biometrically-enabled systems was rapidly seized upon by increasingly sophisticated supercomputers, which gave a fuller picture of health trends and outcomes that would have been impossible to see, otherwise. This had far-reaching implications for epidemiology and disease research.
2) Humanitarian pursuits drove biometric innovation throughout the 21st century.
21st century humanitarianism was characterized by a willingness to leverage any available technologies to distribute resources more efficiently. The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees formally declared a policy of biometric refugee registration in 2010, which would be put into place in the turbulence of the coming years. From the Middle Eastern and Rohingya Migrant Crises of 2015 onward to famine conditions and social unrest plaguing African nations during the 10s and 20s, aid organizations saw biometrics as a crucial component of their aid disbursement strategies. In 2016, the World Food Program tapped iris-scanning to help streamline food aid in Jordan, and the success of that initial venture inspired a similar implementation in Uganda in 2018. Also in 2016, Save the Children created their own pilot program to measure school attendance by at-risk girls in Kenya through fingerprint biometrics.
Biometrics was also an essential technology for medical aid during the early 21st century, used to keep track of patients in Africa from as early as 2009. These pushes were led by the public sector of African nations and supported by humanitarian organizations. In the 00s and 10s, Mali, Gabon, Sierra Leone, and Kenya instituted their own biometric patient identification programs, which allowed these nations to keep track of important public health information like vaccination records and HIV status. Other African nations quickly followed suit. While contemporary critics cited potential issues with consent or a lack of accountability when using biometric identification for aid, the results continued to speak for themselves. Hand in hand with efforts to encourage sustainability and self-sufficiency, these biometric programs were fertile ground for local authorities to develop their own identity programs and close the gap between humanitarian aid and good self-governance.
3) Developing countries continued to “leapfrog” developed countries during the 21st century in their approaches to biometric technology.
In the late 10s, global payment companies began to toy with the idea of biometric payments attached to credit and debit accounts. Mobile banking apps continued to turn to biometric logins to support more hardened security for cell-centric customers. While scattered changes were taking place in privacy-conscious Western countries, developed countries in both hemispheres began to seize biometric advancements with both hands, prioritizing the leap in efficiency they could expect from a well-documented citizenry. The massive Aadhaar program in India brought biometric identification to over a billion citizens, who were able to use an “Aadhaar Pay” app beginning in the late 10s to purchase goods and services effortlessly.
As a continent, Africa was quicker to adopt biometric modalities than any other. While the developed world’s approach to biometrics was cautious and incremental, partially owing to concerns about privacy and to entrenched interests, developing countries dove headfirst into the possibilities presented by the technology. This echoed the shift from a complete lack of connectivity to widespread mobile connectivity in Africa in the 00’s and 10s, bypassing the “wired” stage to which developed countries remained partially tethered. Law enforcement agencies in African countries were quick to adopt mobile biometrics for criminal identification, which proved highly effective at reducing crime thanks to a widespread transition to compulsory biometric identity cards for citizens. The “identity gap” in these countries rapidly closed, bringing billions to meaningful participation in their economies—a contributor to the rapid growth of African economies in this century.