What is biometrics?

As the digital world becomes an ever-greater part of daily life, so does the value of a science with more than 100 years of history: biometrics.

In a nutshell

What is biometrics

Biometrics comprise a set of technologies and processes used to recognize, authenticate, and identify people based on certain physical or behavioral characteristics.

Those characteristics must be

  • Universal
    so that everybody can use them
  • Unique
    to unequivocally distinguish between different persons
  • Invariable
    to ensure they can be used throughout a person’s lifetime
  • Measurable
    to enable comparisons

Why use biometrics?

Biometric authentication: making life simpler and safer

Times have changed, and we live in a world where mobility reigns. However, the typical uses and security behaviors that worked at home on a PC are more difficult to apply on the move, where passwords have reached their limits. But, more than ever, we still have to protect our data, transactions, and our identity.

Biometrics is one answer: a simple wave of the hand, pressing a finger on a scanner, or looking at a camera for a second is enough to authenticate our identity.

Biometric authentication facilitates the life of consumers and citizens who are increasingly mobile and connected; offering a simple alternative to the traditional password and PIN.

Authentication methods ranked by order of security

no access code
a simple access code, such as 123 or 000
1 password for several accounts, changed once a year / authentication via a social network
1 password + SMS/OTP
1 password + a fingerprint
dual-factor biometric authentication
a complex password for each acount and updated every day

Biometrics offer the best compromise between security and convenience

Biometrics authentication: simpler than passwords

Despite their ubiquity, passwords suffer from several drawbacks. Like PIN numbers, they can be hacked or stolen by fraudsters and they need to meet four demanding criteria to be effective: the password must be complex, changed frequently, unique to each application or service provider, and never be written down. For people on the move, biometric authentication is easier than entering a complex password several times a day.

Biometrics as a weapon against identity theft

Biometric security has none of these drawbacks. Fingerprint, facial or iris recognition are unique in making the connection between our physical and digital identities. Biometric authentication helps to prevent identity theft by enabling a person accessing an account or a device to prove that he or she really is who they claim to be. Stealing biometric data without a person’s knowledge, then reproducing it in a useable form to carry out a transaction is far more of a challenge than stealing and using a password.

Biometrics make large-scale theft very difficult

With stolen passwords, fraudsters can potentially access thousands of accounts in a matter of seconds. Such a large-scale attack on personal accounts is virtually impossible with a biometric system, as thieves would have to be able to produce fakes for each stolen element, and use them with the appropriate detector. And while PIN codes are limited to four digits, biometric data is unlimited.

Another key advantage of biometrics over conventional technologies is that authentication or identification can be carried out quickly and seamlessly, with the wave of a hand or literally at a glance.

Are all types of biometrics equally valid?

All biometric technologies have their advantages and drawbacks; depending on the quality of capture possible, how the biometric is used on a daily basis, and its degree of variability over time. For example, a person’s voice may be subject to occasional or even permanent changes.

What are the different types of biometrics?

Biometrics can be divided into three main categories of characteristics:


  • DNA
  • Blood


  • Shape of the hand – Palms – Fingerprints – Vein patterns – Face – Iris – Vein pattern in the retina – Voice** – Ear


  • Gait (way of walking)**
  • Handwritten signatures
  • Keyboard strokes

* Morphological: related to the form and structure of organisms.
** These two types of biometrics may be considered both morphological and behavioral characteristics.

Three biometric technologies—fingerprint, facial and iris recognition—are the most widely used because they combine efficiency with reliability, and are the easiest to deploy and to use.

Fingerprint recognition

exploits the fact that a single print comprises about 100 major features, known as minutiae. Usually, only a dozen minutiae need to match in order to prove that two prints are identical; thereby establishing a person’s identity with a high level of certainty.

Facial recognition

converts an image into a 3D model, whose parameters—such as the spacing between the eyes—are compared on a local or remote biometric database. Its effectiveness depends on image quality, database size, and the power of the feature-matching algorithms.

Iris recognition

draws on the fact that a person’s irises are as different from each other as they are from someone else’s, including identical twins. They change little over a person’s lifetime and can be identified even if glasses or contact lenses are worn.

Why trust biometrics?

Biometrics are increasingly accurate

In recent years, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has dramatically improved the accuracy of biometrics. Facial recognition in particular has improved twentyfold in a period of just four years (2013-2018). This new generation of highly efficient intelligence studies a massive amount of data and trains itself to differentiate the details of a person’s face the same way a human would. With each passing year, AI accuracy improves by 30 –50 percent. It is also used to boost the accuracy and performance of fingerprint recognition, powering biometric devices capable of recognizing even damaged fingerprints.

Biometrics has also become more accurate as the sensors and cameras that capture biometric data become increasingly more sophisticated. For instance, today’s most powerful facial recognition devices rely on state-of-the-art optical settings combining 2D, 3D, and infra-red cameras for spoof-resistant, speedy verification in all lighting conditions.

Biometrics are a reliable choice

When it comes to authenticating one’s identity, reliability is absolutely essential. Given that a biometric system depends on statistical algorithms, false rejections and false acceptance are unavoidable. No form of biometrics can ever be 100% accurate when used alone. That said, the most powerful biometric solutions aim at finding the right balance between false rejection and false acceptance, rely on multimodal biometrics, and are capable of providing reliable verification in difficult situations.

It is important to adapt rejection or acceptance rates according to precise situations. For example, a highly confidential government building will likely opt for a higher rate of false rejections in order to guarantee zero false acceptances. On the other hand, a standard office building that needs to verify the identities of hundreds of people passing through at rush hour may favor a lower rate of false rejections in order to streamline the process. The most powerful biometric systems will ensure this necessary tradeoff between security and convenience remains as limited as possible.

Multimodal biometrics, i.e. the use of multiple types of biometric data, is one way to improve accuracy and performance. The combination of face and iris recognition or the simultaneous use of finger vein and fingerprint biometrics are forms of multimodal biometrics.

Lastly, the most powerful biometric systems can cope with a number of difficult situations; top-of-the-line fingerprint readers can authenticate wet, dry, or damaged fingerprints. Meanwhile, leading facial recognition tools are unaffected by lighting changes, different angles, or facial changes (wearing a helmet or over-the-ear headphones, change of hairstyle, glasses, etc.) and work in near-motion. Advanced anti-spoofing measures are also key; the most important being liveness detection to differentiate a real face from a mask or photo and detect a fake finger.

What are the main applications of biometrics?

The two main application areas for biometric technologies are to assert our public identities as citizens of a country, and our private identities as consumers in a global economy.

What is biometric data used for?

To identify a person

Identification answers the question:
“Who is this person?”

Identification (1:N) consists of matching biometric data among a large number of persons registered in a database.

To authenticate a person’s identity

Authentication answers the question:
“Is this person really Mr. X?”

Biometric authentication (1:1) consists of verifying that biometric data contained on a passport chip, for example, is the same as for the person holding that passport.

What are the main use cases of biometrics?

Just a few years ago, many viewed biometrics as a futuristic, far-off concept. Today, it has become a part of our everyday lives—and tomorrow, as use cases continue to expand and evolve, biometric technologies will become further ingrained into everything we do.

An everyday tool for every citizen

Biometric technologies opens the door to a wide spectrum of services for citizens around the world:

Biometrics facilitate e-government services at the national, state, or local level

A biometric system offers a seamless way for agencies to issue secure ID documents such as passports and driver’s licenses, and ensures that people receive the benefits to which they are entitled.

Biometrics streamline border controls and improve the travel experience

E-gates that verify identities using biometric technologies are improving the speed and effectiveness of controls while enhancing the travel experience.

Biometrics help law enforcement accelerate criminal investigations

From routine ID checks to crime scenes and casework management, biometric systems are helping to increase investigation efficiency and public safety.

Providing peace of mind for consumers

Biometric authentication and identification technologies streamline and secure a variety of consumer transactions:

Biometrics secure consumer digital onboarding in a range of sectors

Electronic Know-Your-Customer (eKYC) solutions using biometric data enable consumers to assert their identity remotely to subscribe to a new service, either on the move from a smartphone or at home from various devices.

Biometrics provide the highest level of security for sensitive transactions

Biometric payment cards, along with payment authorization or contract signatures by either a smartphone selfie check or fingerprint recognition, are among the transactional use cases for biometrics.

Biometrics ensure effective access control

Biometric technologies can streamline and secure access to restricted areas such as industrial plants, or to restricted services such as medical records or financial systems.

What are the latest biometrics trends?

What is at stake for society with the use of biometrics?

Private data security

Biometric authentication and identification do not necessarily require recording and storing data in a biometric database. With match-on-card technology, biometric data can be embedded on a boarding pass, passport, payment card or other device, and the authentication operation can be performed on the chip itself so that no data ever leaves the chip.

User privacy

Along with concerns over data security, the digital transformation also raises questions about data privacy and the implications for society at large. The use of recognized ‘Privacy by Design’ and ‘Privacy by Default’ principles in a biometric system, both in terms of storage methods and access to personal data, offers a practical response to such questions to protect citizens and consumers alike.

Anonymous data

A biometric database does not necessarily involve a link between biometric data and an identity—the biometric identifier can be a string of numbers or a random number. While allowing to verify a person’s rights, biometrics also guarantee their anonymity.

How is IDEMIA’s expertise in biometrics serving governments and enterprises?

Our expertise at a glance

IDEMIA biometric technologies in action around the world

IDEMIA’s expertise in biometric technologies is based on a combination of advanced fingerprint, facial, and iris recognition algorithms, and a unique know-how in biometric device production and solution development that spans five decades.

  • 1.2B

    biometric identities created in India

  • 5M

    biometric devices already shipped

  • 29

    Departments of Motor Vehicles use our facial recognition technology for DL/ID issuance in the US

  • 10 min

    from curbside to the duty free zone at Changi Airport in Singapore using biometrics

Here are a few examples of how IDEMIA’s biometric technologies are true game changers across several industries:

Biometric systems protect and modernize the identity of citizens

1.1 billion individuals worldwide lack an official ID and cannot access basic services such as education, welfare benefits, or micro-credit. In some countries, while identity documents exist, they are less secure and therefore vulnerable to identity fraud or hacking. New systems enabled and secured by biometrics are bringing welfare services to citizens in Nepal, secure identity documents to residents in Mali, and modernized identity management and secure biometric passports to citizens in Chile.

Biometrics prove a true partner to law enforcement agencies

Everyone wants to feel safe and secure, it’s universal and this is why law enforcement agencies need cutting-edge biometric solutions to support investigations, background checks, and identification in the field. Biometric technologies empower law enforcement officers in New South Wales, Australia to efficiently process and book criminals while the state of Michigan in the United States is using biometric matching to speed up investigation and provide new leads on unresolved crimes.

Biometrics optimize passenger flow at innovative airports

Like any other customer, today’s airline passengers expect unparalleled convenience and a frictionless journey—without sacrificing safety. With the breakthrough use of biometrics, passengers flying through Singapore‘s most innovative and busy airport can simply and securely zip through all departure control points to get from curbside to duty free in less than 10 minutes.

Biometric technologies secure borders and facilitate travel

Whether facilitating the passenger journey of 9.5 million people in Australia, managing a constant stream of people crossing UAE’s borders daily, or ensuring that passengers can move freely throughout the border-free Schengen travel zone, authorities increasingly turn to biometrics to streamline and secure travel. The use of the latest biometric technologies makes it possible to fight against irregular immigration and trans-border crime and quickly flag people with fraudulent identities or persons of national security interest while simplifying the border crossing experience for bona fide travelers.

Biometric solutions simplify bank account opening

In a world transformed by new technological frontiers, consumers increasingly want to manage their lives remotely and on-the-go. A tech-minded bank in France offers new clients the ability to open accounts remotely by using facial recognition to prove their identity. After a video conversation with an adviser, new clients can sign their contract remotely and get their account opened within 24 hours.

Biometrics make payments easier

Forward thinking banks in Japan and France have integrated biometric data into payment cards to replace the classic PIN code with a fingerprint scan. These biometric cards open the door to contactless payment above the current thresholds. More than 80% of global consumers* are ready to make the switch.

Biometrics provide fast, frictionless, and ultra-hygienic building access

In today’s ultra-hygienic world, contactless has become the new gold standard. Contactless biometric devices equipped with 3D fingerprint technology powered by Artificial Intelligence can scan four fingers in less than one second. They ensure convenient controlled access in busy corporate building lobbies in Tokyo, Sydney and Paris, provide a frictionless authentication experience to safe deposit customers in the UK, protect security restricted areas in Prague Airport, and secure residential building access in São Paulo.

Biometrics balance compliance and convenience for background checks

In the US financial sector, the recruitment of brokers is regulated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) which requires background checks. By electronically capturing and transmitting fingerprints for validation, brokers can now comply quickly and securely in just ten minutes.

*Dentsu Data Lab, Worldwide survey 2021—encompassing 3422 people in 14 countries

Meet with biometrics

Let’s open the discussion on biometrics

Biometrics are a part of each and every one of us. We share this fact in common, but what our biometrics are—face, fingerprints, irises, and more—is what make us truly unique.


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