Biometric scanners could unlock a new era of supersecure gadgets

Biometric scanners—like fingerprint readers and face identification technology–have started to make the move from scifi flicks into your own home. Some of these biometrics are standard today, like Facebook’s photo tagging, but what does the future hold?

Well, imagine a world where your car would run only after it knew you were sitting in the driver’s seat, and gun accidents were dramatically reduced thanks to firearms that require a fingerprint before letting anyone pull the trigger. If biometric technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, these innovations may be closer than you think. We’re not there yet, but that doesn’t mean biometrics isn’t about to become a big part of your life.

Smile for the camera

Facial recognition technology could already be in your pocket. Samsung's Galaxy S III, for example, has a "Face Unlock" option that scans your mug before unlocking the phone. However, as anyone who has used this feature can attest, it's not perfect. In fact, it's not even close. The early days of the new feature were a bit of a joke, and the Web was awash in stories of how easy it was to fool the system using a photo of the phone's owner.

Likewise, the technology can have a difficult time verifying your identity if you have anything on your face, like a pair of glasses. Updates have given the Face Unlock feature a bit more stability, and the scan will now search for "signs of life" like blinking and other movements, but it's still not as ironclad as you might want to believe.

The good news here is that the technology is becoming cheaper, and thus is becoming more widespread among various manufacturers. Competition should bring the cost down, which is great news for consumers. Could we see facial recognition more widely implemented for things like building security or even at home? Perhaps, but right now the technology is too flimsy for the mass market.

Facial recognition seems to be a better fit for applications such as photo tagging, which is something Facebook has been using for some time now. By comparing photos in which you have already been identified with new photos, Facebook’s software can identify you in other photos in which you appear. Of course, this comes with controversy, and privacy advocates have been fighting the social network over the use of the feature ever since it was introduced.

At this point, using your face to unlock a gadget like your smartphone is simply a matter of convenience, rather than a true security feature. Setting up your phone to recognize your face can give you quicker access to your device than typing in a password, but you're sacrificing some security in the process. With that in mind, the future doesn't look particularly bright for this form of biometric identification. Yes, the technology could grow to be more secure, but that will likely lead to even more false negatives if you happen to wear glasses or have hair covering a portion of your face. Until a company can remedy both of those big issues, we're calling this one a dud.

Unlock with a touch

Compared to facial recognition systems, fingerprint identification has matured much faster. The technology already has a wide range of applications, from providing security for high-value laptops to small businesses that use the systems as time clocks to track employees’ hours. It's also much more difficult to trick a fingerprint scanner into believing you're someone else.

Recent rumors have pointed to fingerprint scanning being implemented in Apple's next iPhone, and while that idea might seem slightly far-reaching, it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility. In fact, Apple recently purchased a company that knows all about fingerprint scanning, and while it's difficult to tell which product line the tech might pop up in, it's clear that the company is interested.

Of course, print identification isn't without limitations: A cut on your finger can prevent the scanner from functioning, and obviously gloves or other hand coverings are problematic. But despite that, your fingerprints are all over the biometric revolution, and you're going to be using them plenty if you're not already doing so.

Fingerprint readers have advanced to the point that you don't even need to touch your digit onto a panel in order to get it read. A company called IDair is developing a scanner that can read your fingerprint from almost 20 feet away. If that doesn't make you feel like you're living in the future, I don't know what will.

A pricey proposition
Yes, fingerprint and facial recognition have arrived, but what about the super futuristic technologies we see in movies? Well, for the time being, many of the more advanced forms of biometric identification remain either too expensive or just plain nonexistent.

Take, for example, retina scanning—or iris scanning, which is the more accurate term. Sure, we've seen it in on TV for decades, but in reality the technology is only just starting to become practical for everyday business security. Most eye scanning systems are too expensive and complicated for the vast majority of businesses, and firmly out of the realm of everyday home security. Sure, there are some comparatively cheap options, but ID card readers are cheaper and most businesses don't see the benefit in taking security to the digital extreme.

Likewise, it would be nice to have a security system that could recognize and identify us simply by the sound of our voice, and that is still many years in the future. Our phones, TVs and other gadgets are just now gaining the ability to recognize even the most basic human speech, so betting the security of your home, or even your smartphone, on a machine is currently out of the question.

All in all, biometric technology shows promise, especially when it comes to fingerprint recognition. While certain areas of the industry are advancing by leaps and bounds, others just aren't living up to the hype. For at least the next few years, you're much more likely to be unlocking your phone, or even your home security system, using your fingerprint than with a blink of your eye.