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Place Your Finger Here

You can change your password. Your fingerprint is forever.

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By Nathaniel Nelson

Biometric data scanning, once the domain of eerie science fiction novels and kitschy TV police procedurals, has become commonplace in daily life. Most smart phones, for example, unlock from the touch of a simple fingerprint. Theme parks including Disney and Universal regularly read guests' fingerprints for entry.

Keeping this kind of data safe is understandably important. People can change their credit card numbers and their passwords. A fingerprint, however, is immutable. Knowing the organization that holds that image is protecting personal data of this kind is key.

Biometric data is captured by analyzing someone's unique markers, including fingerprints and iris patterns, then turning that information into metrics for identification. These characteristics aren't just limited to physical attributes: the way someone walks or even talks can also be recorded and then churned into data markers. On the basis that no two individuals have the exact same characteristics (fingerprint, gait, voice pattern and so forth), you can use this data to be assured someone is who they say they are.

"This technique aids in avoiding security breaches and frauds in comparison to the traditional methods such as the use of tokens and passwords," says a report from Grand View Research in February.

Fingerprint scans read all the details and translate the details into biometric data.

Currently fingerprint scans are the most popular biometric marker, according to research firm Markets and Markets. That makes sense: Scanning a fingerprint is relatively easy, and there are pluses to opening a smart device with a single touch rather than typing in a string of numbers and characters. A fingerprint is also never going to be forgotten, is always available, and Hackers can't just guess a fingerprint's image as they can a password.

Other kinds of biometric markers are also being adopted for identification reasons. In the U.K., e-passports now use facial recognition to presumably provide a more failsafe way of tracking travelers. The U.S. uses a very similar system, adopting iris scanning into its immigration processing. Transport and logistics now accounts for a quarter of the entire biometrics market.

Still, having companies scan a fingerprint or an iris pattern raises eyebrows in some. Fringe concerns about fingerprint scanning can range from missing fingerprints to mutilated hands. Those are unlikely scenarios, to be sure. But stolen fingerprint data is much more difficult to reset than a four digit pin — and that can be concerning enough.

Like a fingerprint, an iris can be scanned, with information used to identify a person.

Companies at the forefront of biometrics technology are doing their best to secure this unique, personal data. Apple, for example, has created a system called Secure Enclave to kill two birds with one stone: the software transforms fingerprint data into mathematical representations stored locally on the device, so that no captured image of the finger itself is required in the process, and all the information that is stored isn't uploaded to any public servers. This way, not only would a hacker not have means to intercept the data, but even if a device is stolen, thieves wouldn't be able to reverse engineer a picture of a fingertip from its series of corresponding numbers.

Consumer technology brands, like Apple, that make devices capturing biometric information have a financial motive to ensure their customers' biometric data stays safe. And the use, and capture, of biometric data are projected to grow over the next few years.

The continued adoption of consumer electronics, including payment systems like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, are expected to boost the global biometric systems market —from fingerprint to iris scans — to $59.3 billion by 2025, says Grand View Research.

As biometric data becomes the future lock and key to our consumer devices and our information, companies will need to assure consumers that not only are their files, photos and contacts secure — but their fingerprints, and other uniquely personal attributes, are too.

Photo: A woman enters her gym using her fingerprint. (Photo via iStock by Getty Images)

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