Biometrics isn’t a new field, but it is revolutionizing security systems and the way we access data. In the past, the security of corporations and nations alike rested upon passwords and firewalls, the wit of programmers and specialists against the cunning of those who sought illegal access or gain. However, by using the human body itself and pairing that knowledge with programming finesse, we find ourselves in terra incognita. In the article below, we’ll define the field, explore what it measures, and consider the implications for personal privacy in this new world.

At the Root

If you want to understand what’s entailed in this modern science, you must first realize that it isn’t a new concept. It’s an aspect of physical and forensic anthropology with a somewhat colorful past. Beginning in the last two or three decades of the 19th century, western science used a fledgling understanding of human physiology to draw conclusions about various populations and ethnicities.

Unfortunately, this early version of the field was deeply flawed, colored by misconceptions about non-white or non-Euro American cultures and peoples. It was used as a tool by various groups to substantiate racist ideologies and inhumane treatment of other ethnicities, pogroms and ethnic cleansing events such as the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s. The question is how a field that measures physical features as general traits held in common on the basis of sex, age or population of ethnic ancestors.

It comes down to an imperfect understanding of genotypic and phenotypic human characteristics. Those who sought to bend science to their deeply held and flawed beliefs about other groups did a disservice to both science and humanity by applying a value judgment to the measures. Today, we understand that physiology does not directly correlate to intelligence, morality, or overall worthiness of human life. Instead, more finely-grained aspects are used as a means of ultimately personal identification and enhanced security.

How It’s Applied

The field that began dismally has proven surprisingly useful once the less savory aspects were expunged. Today, cyber security experts and national policy makers explore the applications of this human science on an individual level. Finger prints are a physiological trait, and each individual is born with a set of prints distinctive from every other human being on the planet. This newer and cleaner expansion of an older science has also revealed other distinctive means of measuring physical traits. When merged with the latest technology, it presents a formidable impediment to illegitimate or illegal access of sensitive information.

Like fingerprints, patterns of irises in the eyes are unique to each person. Palm prints, not of the surface but of the network of veins that run beneath the skin are also highly distinctive. Another aspect that differs in the recent applications of the field is that a system must possess functionality. Security on any level that utilizes this new adaptation must meet certain criteria.

They should be universal to all human beings, yet distinctive in each individual and permanent features of physiology rather than adaptations to the immediate environment. These traits should be measurable via technology, which must function with consistency and reliability, and they should not be able to be imitated or reproduced artificially. Perhaps the most interesting criterion upon which these security systems are adjudged is how easily a subject population accepts it.

While countries and companies use science to develop original and novel security measures, perhaps no other comes quite as close to being ideal for the purpose. Biometrics itself is not the system, but the fact that each human being possesses certain traits that are both general to the species and unique on an individual level that can be recorded and used as identifiers reduces the likelihood that a system can be hacked or national security compromised in such a direct manner.

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