Fingerprint Technology in the Age of COVID

As with any change in the market environment, there will be sectors that will decline but also areas of opportunity. The seismic changes resulting from the COVID pandemic have resulted in both immediate and long-term changes across most if not all market sectors. This is looking to be particularly apparent in the field of biometric authentication.

There will undoubtedly be winners and losers in terms of technologies for biometric authentication. The focus of this article is fingerprint authentication, but to place this in context we will also need to briefly consider the effect on other biometric technologies such as facial recognition. The aim of this article is to consider the questions we should be asking and to propose some thoughts on the answers.

The pre-COVID market environment

Fingerprint technology is (or was, depending on your perspective) a major part in the overall biometrics market, in turn a significant part of national ID card and ePassport projects. As an example, a Frost & Sullivan report on the Asia-Pacific biometrics market cites the fingerprint technology sector as a large contributor to growth (see IDN August 2019). But this was a pre-COVID assessment – is it still valid?

We were already at an ‘interesting’ point in the market dynamics in fingerprint authentication. Credit card companies were introducing them into payment cards, the smartphone brands exerted significant brand presence in both identification and payment and further new technology entrants such as Zwipe were vying for presence. How will this dynamic be affected?

Fingerprint technology as a biometric

In February 2020 IDN featured another assessment on the biometrics market, this time from IDEMIA and in the form of four market trends. The first of these was multi-biometric identification; the use of more than one biometric requiring perhaps two from fingerprint, face and iris. The article cites examples from law enforcement to eID cards but again – is this still valid?

One key element in the dynamic is outlined above – fingerprints are but one option in a selection of biometrics. Fingerprints, face, iris, voice, hand, veins and even gait and behaviour are all options for authentication. Different companies and groups have their individual approaches and technologies to sell or promote – how will this change in the age of COVID?

Marketing response during the pandemic

During the pandemic there was some marketing positioning statements that may not stand the test of time. Some were possibly to reassure shareholders, others an attempt to hold the high ground from competing technologies. This is a good point in time to take a more reasoned assessment of these in order to chart our way forward.

From the facial recognition technology sector, the message that ‘fingerprints are dead’ did highlight one very pertinent fact – that public confidence in fingerprint readers touched by many people per day may prove to be permanently eroded. This will be most evident in the airport experience, where almost by definition there will be common touch from travellers from multiple nations. As highlighted in a debate within IDN July 2020, fingerprint touch verification could fade away over the next few years in the border control setting.

From the fingerprint technology sector, their corresponding marketing message that ‘facial recognition is dead’ again touched on a pertinent issue – the perception that facial recognition had to adapt to the widespread use of face masks which cover some important features. Covering key features was a known issue at the time, from thick beards in some cultures to cold weather clothing that covers ears and part of the face. The main issues are that this requires new training sets for masked individuals and that false positive and negative recognition rates could be different.

We should also at this point consider some of the responses from government and regulatory bodies. Considerable leeway has been given on privacy and human rights in order to exert some control on the pandemic and some of this will be difficult to reverse. Will bodies such as the UN allow this to continue and how should this affect our focus going forward?

Use cases for fingerprint technologies

We can simplify this complex topic by considering this in two broad use case categories – public and personal fingerprint readers. Public readers are used by many individuals, for example in banking, law enforcement and border control. Personal readers are deployed in consumer electronics such as smartphones and payment cards.

To retain acceptance, fingerprint technologies in applications such as ATMs and border control may have to rely on trusted and obvious disinfection between users, probably using UV illumination. In the age of COVID there has been significant hype and misinformation around this.

Personal fingerprint readers have the significant cross-infection advantage that they are each used by a very limited number of people, most commonly by one individual. We should note that readers for consumer electronics devices and payment cards have very different market dynamics, noted for example when Fingerprint Cards AB announced their strategic review in July 2021.

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been the rise in contactless payments as an infection control measure. In pre-COVID Western Europe only 8% of card payments were contactless but in the immediate aftermath this had become 50% (see Cash & Payment News™ July 2020). However, this establishes a need to authenticate the link between the card (something you have) and the bearer (something you are) and a potential solution to this is fingerprint enabled payment cards.

Fingerprint readers in smart cards is a compelling payment proposition. In addition to the two-factor authentication noted above, it also removes the need for a shared keypad for PIN entry and can be seen to help compliance with the EU PSD2 directive. I anticipate we will be hearing much more about this technology.