In the last decade, smartphones have dramatically changed the way people communicate, work, bank or shop. Everything just seems taps away when you have your smartphone with you.
Since the inception of these pocketable smart communicators, a major turning point was the introduction of biometrics. Mobile biometrics turned out to be a game changer for mobile security, which was limited to PINs, passwords or patterns. Mobile biometrics has succeeded and matured in a very short period of time and manufacturers are offering all sorts mobile biometrics solutions using different types of sensors and biometric capture methods.
Since biometric recognition on mobile devices is here to stay, we will try to answer the question that occasionally strikes geeky minds: can we use mobile fingerprint scanner as biometric authenticator for different purpose? Let’s figure it out.
Ubiquity of mobile biometrics
Mobile biometrics has already become a mainstream method of device security and identity authentication. People now confidently rely on their device’s fingerprint sensor, iris or face scanner to lock their device and authenticate for different apps and services. Overwhelmed by the user response, device manufacturers have also started offering more advanced mobile biometric methods like 3D face scanning with the help of infrared, under display ultrasonic fingerprint sensors, iris scanner with IR camera, etc.
Once touted as a flagship feature, fingerprint and face recognition is now available even on low-end devices. What is considered flagship biometric features today, will be arriving on mid-range and eventually low-end devices tomorrow. In a report published by Biometrics Research Group, Inc., the research firm predicted that worldwide revenues within the mobile biometrics sector will total US$45 billion by 2020. It also projected that biometric smartphones will increase tenfold, from 200 million users in 2015, to 2 billion users by 2020. The firm had also predicted that mobile biometric will become ubiquitous by 2020 and will be available in 100 percent of mobile devices (smartphones).
The level of ubiquity mobile biometrics has attained presents an opportunity for businesses and service providers to use this technology to elevate the level of security and convenience for the services they offer. User authentication in an important process in mobile banking, ecommerce and financial apps and mobile biometrics can help businesses patch the loopholes.
Use of fingerprint sensor in mobile
Among all types of biometric recognition methods available on today’s mobile devices, fingerprint recognition is arguably the most trusted, used and the most popular biometric modality. This is not only true for mobile application but also for all biometric applications. And why shouldn’t it be? It offers a perfect balance of security, convenience and user consent, unlike many other popular biometric recognition methods. It is not only the most popular, but also the most developed biometric modality. It took considerable time to develop and have served humankind for more than 100 years.
Early efforts of introducing fingerprint sensor kept its functionality limited as a biometric lock, however today use of fingerprint sensor in mobile devices is not limited to locking the phone, it can do much more including clicking a selfie for you!
First and foremost, a fingerprint sensor is a device security tool. It can lock your device by registering unique features of your fingerprint so that it cannot be unlocked unless you scan your registered fingerprint. However, security is not the only purpose fingerprint sensors sever. Following are the ways people use fingerprint sensor in mobile.
As an identity authenticator for apps and services
How do you authenticate your identity for online services? Still most people use a password along with a user ID. However, the User ID – password based systems are consistently feeling heat of growing cyber security threats and becoming an authentication nightmare on today’s touchscreen devices.
Biometric fingerprint authentication is increasingly replacing password / PIN based methods for online service, specially on mobile devices. Even security focused services like e-commerce, banking and financial services have started integrating biometric security with their apps for account and data security.
As a command button and for gesture input
There are apps that can enable you to use your mobile fingerprint sensor as a gesture input surface to perform tasks like clicking selfie, turning screen off, setting gesture control, quick actions, etc. Fingerprint sensor can even be used to lock individual apps or for setting fingerprint unlock for password manager. There are hacks and apps that will allow you to run specific commands or open predefined apps by swiping up, down, left or right on your fingerprint sensor. You can also set your fingerprint gesture to change track, go to home screen, open notification panel and much more.
So your fingerprint sensor can do much more than unlocking your device with the touch of your finger. But our most important question still remains unanswered… how to use mobile fingerprint sensor as biometric scanner?
Can we use mobile fingerprint scanner as a biometric authenticator?
Your mobile fingerprint sensor is already a biometric authenticator, doing all identification and authentication tasks for you. If you have already setup a fingerprint lock on your mobile device, you would already be performing biometric scanning several times a day. So you already have a biometric scanner for your device and app related authentication and identification needs.
However, here we are talking about something else. We are talking about the identification and authentication scenarios, where you have to scan your fingers on large scanners. Airports, law enforcement offices, government services, etc. are some of the places where you go through identification or authentication on larger fingerprint sensors.
Can’t these places simply use a smartphone, which already has a built-in fingerprint sensor? Why do they have to use such bulky setup? Well, there are substantial reasons why they do not use mobile as a biometric device for their identification and authentication needs.
Mobile fingerprint sensors are kept small
Mobile phones are constructed keeping compactness in mind. To achieve this, manufacturers use most compact material and fingerprint sensors are no exception.
Try placing your finger on your mobile fingerprint sensor and pay attention to how much area of your finger is actually in contact with the sensor surface. You would notice that only a small portion of your fingertip can be accommodated on the scanning surface. Reason? Mobile fingerprint sensors are much smaller than the ones you have encountered in your office, stores, airports, etc. But wait, it is not only about the size.
Being smaller in size, mobile fingerprint sensors and the underlying recognition software are programmed to work differently. They capture and process only a limited portion of your fingerprint of your fingertip. Since only a portion of fingerprint is captured, they process lesser number of fingerprint features than the full-fingerprint scanners.
High security applications like banking, law enforcement, air travel, etc. require a full fingerprint to be captured and processed so that level of trust in an identity can be maintained.
This is not to say that partial fingerprint are insecure or they can be easily circumvented. Even partial fingerprints are adequately secure; however, they are still more focused on convenience rather than security. That is probably the reason they are always backed by an alternate device unlock method like PIN, pattern or password, which you have to setup before your device allows you to use the fingerprint security.
Still, you can use mobile as biometric device
External fingerprint readers
Mobile fingerprint sensors, which come embedded with the devices, offer limited functionality as they only capture and process partial fingerprint. However, mobile devices with popular operating systems like Windows, iOS and Android comes with native ability to process biometric data and also support external devices. It gives us a chance to plug a full-fledged external fingerprint sensor that can capture and process full fingerprints, giving us an opportunity to use smartphone as a biometric device.
External fingerprint sensors for mobile devices are available in different form factors. There are dedicated devices manufactured for specific applications e.g. police scanners. These dedicated devices run a smartphone operating system and comes with all sorts of connectivity options and features specifications of a modern smartphone.
However, these devices run applications specially designed for a particular use case and also include a camera and fingerprint sensor that can capture full fingerprints. Camera can be used for facial recognition. These devices may also work as an iris scanner, barcode reader, card reader, passport reader, capture signature, RFID reader and infrared scanner.
Since carrying around a hanging fingerprint sensor attached to the mobile phone can be a less convenient, so there are also wrap-around fingerprint scanners that you can put around your mobile phone just like a protective case. They make carrying around the device and performing biometric scans more manageable.
Fingerprint scanner software for mobile
When it comes to different government biometric projects like national ID, law enforcement, etc. only certain biometric sensors, certified or approved by the government agency, can be used to access its services. For example, FBI requires you go submit a live scan taken only with an FBI certified sensor. These agencies generally do not approve mobile scanner for their identification or verification purposes owning to their limitations.
To overcome limitations of built-in mobile fingerprint sensors, external sensors like wrap-around fingerprint cases with a full-fingerprint sensor are available to use mobile as biometric device. However, fingerprint sensor is only half the story.
Introducing an external fingerprint device would also require a supporting fingerprint scanner software for mobile that can help recognize the new hardware to the phone and facilitate capture and processing of biometric data. Fingerprint scanner software for mobile is either supplied along with the external scanner or can be published on the app store by the respective manufacturer.
Biometrics as a service: leveraging a cloud biometrics solution
Leveraging a cloud biometrics solution for enrollment, identification and authentication functions is also an efficient yet cost effective way to use mobile fingerprint scanner as a biometric device. Since core biometric function take place on cloud servers, there is no need for local installations other than an intermediate application the facilitate communication with the biometric cloud server. The fingerprint sensor, be it built-in or external one, works as a biometric input device while biometric computations take place on the cloud server.
The built-in fingerprint sensor in mobile or an external sensor that captures full fingerprints can be used for the purpose depending on the specific requirement.
Smartphones fingerprint sensors have been doing a good job for device security and identity authentication, however, use of built-in sensors in smartphones is limited to in-device biometric authentication. Due to limitations of mobile fingerprint sensors, they are still not considered to be used in high security applications like law enforcements, national ID, air-travel security, etc.
Since built-in mobile fingerprint sensors are not adequate in most high security fingerprint identification or authentication scenarios, an external sensor that qualifies all the sensor requirements makes sense. These external sensors are easy to attach to smartphones and use. They also come in different form factors to suit the requirements of a use case.
With compatible external fingerprint sensor and supporting fingerprint scanner software for mobile, it is possible to use smartphones as a biometric device, which can be used for performing a biometric scan anywhere and everywhere.