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August 4, 2017updated 31 Mar 2023 11:19am

Biometric history: Cave painting, criminal profiling and iris scanning

Research from MasterCard and Oxford University states that 93% of UK consumers would favour biometrics over passwords. Which would you choose?

By Tom Ball

Today we do not only inhabit the world we wake up in, our physical lives are mirrored by a separate cyber life to which we are bound by our numerous devices. We use our smartphones for example to carry out personal banking, shopping and work, so therefore security measures are having to rise and match the importance of the tasks we carry out so casually in this modern era. Iris scanning is one new biometric method employed for the task.

While we insist on being able to access all of our most valuable information from anywhere and at all times, password choices are generally very weak, we use the same one for everything, and we never change them. This is a factor driving the need for multifactor authentication for heightened security, and biometric security measures are entering the spotlight.

With an intense focus on identity in cybersecurity, our own physical identity is set to come into play, and major industry leaders in areas such as banking are experimenting and introducing new ways of making our physical beings the keys to valuable online possessions. This however is not the first time the potential of using our unique physical characteristics has been considered.


The importance of identity represented through unique physical characteristics is truly ancient, hand prints were stamped alongside prehistoric cave paintings that can be traced to tens of thousands of years ago. Examples of fingerprints marking clay tablets as part of business transactions have been recorded back to 500 B.C.

While these examples may have been purely symbolic or ritualistic, biometrics became crucial in the 19th century. As the cogs of industry began to wind, populations grew and congregated, and the need to identify individuals among the masses became a very serious issue.

An outstanding example is the use of hand images for the purpose of identifying individual employees, an initiative put in place by the British astronomer Sir William Herschel in 1858.

In the mid-late part of the century, an anthropologist called Alphonse Bertillon was working as a police desk clerk. Given his role he devised a process of measuring the body, and analysing distinctive features so as to maintain a record of offenders.

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This process was subsequently given the name Bertillionage, and the man behind the method calculated that using 14 traits of a person, the chance of coming across a match was reduced to a miniscule 286,435,456 to 1.


Moving into the last century, major progress was being made as the unique characteristics of voices were being measured through the use of x-rays. This thinking is the precursor to some of the most recent initiatives involving voice recognition.

In 1969 a significant breakthrough was made when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) made the move to implement automation into the process of fingerprint identification. This great stride forwards into the future marks a thought process that has led to technologies such as the finger print scanners used widely today in iPhones and other Apple devices.

In 1985 there was a patent awarded for hand identification, the inception of this breakthrough was routed in the processes and testing conducted by the US army. Only a year later in 1986, another patent was awarded, this time truly ushering in the future, the ability to use the iris scanning for identification.

Throughout the 20th century advancements in biometrics had a snowball effect, and these developments culminated in 2000, as the first face recognition vendor test was held, a technology capable of working in sync with extensive data bases. Education on the subject was also born at the turn of the century, as a biometrics program was introduced at West Virginia University.


Today biometrics is becoming widespread, with major device vendors such as Apple offering a fingerprint scanner as authentication when accessing a device. Apple is not alone, with other vendors also moving to bring security up to date with biometrics.

A recent and ground-breaking example can be found in the implementation of iris scanning technology for the accessing of the TSB banking app. The iris scanning technology for this is provided by Samsung, as the new capability requires the TSB banking app user to have a Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone. This use case is a landmark in the history of biometrics, as it makes TSB the first to offer iris scanning in European banking.

READ MORE: BBC, Microsoft experiment with AI & Biometrics for iPlayer

Another recent example, also implemented by a bank, is a voice recognition security feature put in place by HSBC. This system is based on 100 characteristics of the human voice, and the user can access their banking app by saying “my voice is my password”. This example gained media attention when twin brothers were able to best the security measure, with the other twin gaining entry after seven attempts at the magic words. This proves there is also room for improvement as the world proceeds boldly into the next chapter of biometric history.

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