No, not the flying cars, hoverboards, self-fastening shoes, size adjusting jackets, commercial 3D holograms, instant self-drying clothes, precise weather foreca- you know what? I’ll just tell you:

Biometrics, people. Biometrics.

Biometrics is the measurement and analysis of biological data. In tech land, biometrics refers to technologies that measure and analyse body characteristics such as DNA, fingerprints, eye retinas, voice patterns, facial patterns, and hand measurements – usually for authentication purposes (i.e. to gain entry or access to a place or thing).

In the second instalment of Robert Zemeckis’ gift to everyone’s childhood, Marty and Doc leave Jennifer (Marty’s gal pal) in a corner sleeping while they head off to amend Marty’s horrific judgement concerning one ‘sports almanac’. She is then discovered by the police of the future who find out her name and address by scanning her finger. They take her home, where they open the front door by again using her fingerprint on a panel at the side of the door. So, in that particular future, using fingerprints as a way of being identified in our daily lives and for accessing homes is an accepted practice – and we are not too far away from that reality.

Fingerprint scanners in high security buildings have existed for a while and manufacturers have been working to bring them to a wider consumer market for the last decade, with varying degrees of success: watch experts bypass a number of ostensibly secure (and rather expensive) consumer-aimed products. Interestingly, they succeed not because the fingerprint scan technology is poor but because of flaws like the standard keyhole addition being easily broken. There are also products that have successfully linked door locks to our smartphones, (to positive reviews) and it’s a sure bet that we’ll be seeing a working fingerscan addition any day now. Oh, and watch out for entry authentication through facial recognition – smartphone cameras are now sophisticated enough to provide the option as a step in multi-factor authentication.

While it is possible that a fingerprint scan could replace the need for an additional physical object like a front door key, it is unlikely that current biometric means will completely replace non-physical keys like passwords any time soon, especially when they protect something that we hold to be highly valuable or irreplaceable. In our experience, trustworthy security comes from a combination of biometrics, like a fingerprint or facial features, and also a password or PIN.

Using biometrics as a way of generally being identified, by the state, private enterprises or other individuals is one possible solution to a very modern challenge: how can we prove who we are, online and offline, in such a way that takes into account our increasingly mobile and digital society? And how can we do so in such a way that doesn’t constitute a breach of an individual’s privacy?

With more time spent online, whether for business or pleasure, the ability to remotely prove your identity is becoming essential in order to maintain a trusted net ecosystem. But, just like Jennifer in the not-so-distant 21 October 2015 (Happy Back to the Future Day!), a successful digital identity system would also need to take into account face to face identity checks.

For the adoption of biometrics to increase, three things must happen:

  1. Implementation must make the user’s life as simple as it was without biometrics – or even simpler!
  2. Biometric systems must be able to accurately discriminate between individuals.
  3. They must be secure and robust against spoofers and attackers.

By Alex Harvey
Ask me anything: @alextharv

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