See Inside September 2008

Beyond Fingerprinting: Is Biometrics the Best Bet for Fighting Identity Theft?

Security systems based on anatomical and behavioral characteristics may offer the best defense against identity theft

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If you are like many people, navigating the complexities of everyday life depends on an array of cards and passwords that confirm your identity. But lose a card, and your ATM will refuse to give you money. Forget a password, and your own computer may balk at your command. Allow your cards or passwords to fall into the wrong hands, and what were intended to be security measures can become the tools of fraud or identity theft. Biometrics—the automated recognition of people via distinctive anatomical and behavioral traits—has the potential to overcome many of these problems.

Compared with a physical token such as a bank card or with the knowledge of a secret such as a PIN, biometric traits are profoundly more difficult to forge, copy, share, misplace or guess. Indeed, they offer the only way of determining whether a person has been issued multiple official documents, such as a driver’s license or passport, under different names. Yet they are quite easy to use as proof of identity. For these reasons, biometric systems have been gaining popularity in recent years. Laptops and mobile phones that can recognize a fingerprint, for instance, are now commercially available. In some countries biometric security is employed to safeguard items such as ATM cards and passports, to determine whether a person can rightfully enter a building or to ensure that someone is entitled to welfare payments. These systems are far from perfect. But with inexpensive sensors and powerful microprocessors now available, biometric technology is certain to become more pervasive.

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