Moving Towards A New Era of Human Identification
By: Azfar Adib
Identification can be considered a core human need. Every person in this world aspires, needs and deserves some sort of unique identification. In fact, our day-to-day activities both in the physical or virtual arena regularly call for the use of these documents, whether it’d be buying a bottle of wine at the SAQ or signing up for your first driving lesson. However, let’s imagine a world where we shall no longer need any physical document nor any virtual password. No more commitment to remembering dozens of passwords or to meeting dreadful requirements to create high strength passwords. This kind of grandiose thinking is exactly where we are currently progressing towards: a world where our identities will be automatically verified through our physiological attributes, or otherwise known as biometrics.
The necessity of identity verification has existed right since the start of human history. It started with a very basic technique, remembering general details like one’s facial features, voice, or physical assets to verify them. While human civilization has progressed to a period of papermaking and record keeping; written identification concepts gradually emerged. In the meantime, continuous technological advancement has continuously been used as a tool to create stronger and more convenient identification methods. As the world turns into a global village through widespread internet access, digital identification schemes become more prevalent. In parallel, in the field of biometric identification, fingerprints, voice and iris scan have received significant recognition for its efficiency, thus currently being used by government and business entities.
During the past year, we have exponentially accelerated our virtual presence in this “new normal”, and these unexpected times have quickly called out for the implementation of digital identification. It comes from common knowledge that online activities require us to first prove our identity. Of course, types and layers of such verification vary in accordance with the purpose. For example, while attending an online class may need just a single layer authentication, through username-password, giving an online exam may require additional verifications like scanning a student's ID card. Some applications may need even deeper verification. For instance, age-restricted product-services require the validation of a customer's age through ID documents or biometrics before allowing purchase.
The demand for digital identification schemes; that are secured, consistent, accessible for all and adaptable for various purposes; is now higher than ever. According to a report by MarketsandMarkets, the global market of identity verification is expected to grow from USD 7.6 billion in 2020 to USD 15.8 billion by 2025, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.6%. North America will continue to hold the largest share of this market, while Asia-Pacific region will experience maximum growth. The market in Canada is also promising in this regard. In its recent directory, “Digital ID & Authentication Council of Canada” (DIACC) has enlisted 73 member companies who are providing a variety of digital authentication services in a continuously growing market.
Digital identification has become increasingly important to Canadians during the pandemic, not only for enhanced online activities, but also for hygiene concerns around physical ID. A survey carried out by Interac in August 2020 among a pool of 996 adult Canadians provided some interesting insights. Over half of the respondents expressed hygiene concerns around physical ID, and said that the government should prioritize providing digital IDs. However, 62% of the participants are concerned to keep their identity data safe online, 57% feel it is risky to take a picture of a physical ID, and 51% feel it would be more convenient to have a single digital ID that would bundle various physical IDs. Such feedback from users clearly indicates the need for more secured, unified and seamless digital identification schemes .
Based on the rising innovations of digital identification to improve its accuracy, security and versatility, commercial entities are strongly competing to secure the growing market. For instance, Apple was granted a patent in December 2020 for manufacturing electronic devices with palm biometric sensor technologies in the USA. In addition, just recently in March this year, Samsung and Mastercard have partnered to pilot a biometric card with built-in fingerprint sensor for authorising in-store transactions in South Korea: the world is looking bright for better ways to identity ourselves. Recently, there has been another groundbreaking scheme: smart watches that utilize users’ ECG or Electrocardiogram (electrical signal generated from heart) to verify them seamlessly. Although still foreign, this kind of solution is already available in Canadian market. In such a scenario, our smartwatch or smart cloth with skin sensors will be enough to verify us, wherever we visit in-person or virtually. These devices will continuously capture, process and then transmit our unique physiological signals to the identification system for matching and verification. So, we shall neither need to carry a physical document nor need to remember any password for proving our identities.
Furthermore, biometrics identification can empower vulnerable populations in different parts of the world, who have been long deprived of suitable identification documents. In an UN-operated refugee camp in Jordan, Syrian refugees are paying for groceries with a scan of their eyes. As of October 2019, The UNHCR (UN High Commission on Refugees) has expanded its use of biometrics for food distribution across eight countries, serving over 2.4 million people. Along with secured identification, biometric processes can help organizations reduce duplication and management costs.
Along with immense potential, biometrics technologies still have multi-dimensional challenges to overcome. Long-term consistency is one of those. Fingerprint, iris scan, face, voice, electrocardiogram—all these keep changing as our age increases. Another danger is unauthorized surveillance. Biometric data collected without our permission, and it can be used to monitor and track us holistically. Thus comes security and privacy concerns.
Acceptance of biometric technologies in different countries highly depend on their respective socio-economic, cultural and political context. For instance, from a financial point of view, not everyone can personally afford an ECG smartwatch. Whereas culturally, facial image capture may not be a practiced that is accepted. In fact, mandatory masking during COVID-19 pandemic made facial recognition quite difficult.
However, the benefits of biometrics by far outweigh the risks. So far the signs are quite positive in this regard. As of now, over 50 countries in the world have nationally implemented biometrics mechanisms for different purposes like: voter registration, citizen identification, border control. That being said, technological advancements are only impactful if successful integration in the end-to-end ecosystem. In the biometrics industry, this ecosystem mainly consists of government agencies (making necessary approvals), business entities (verifying their customers), verification service providers ( providing verification solutions) and end users. While government agencies may formulate supportive regulations, business entities and verification service providers can together offer best possible solutions for gaining the ultimate confidence of the end users.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, agreed by all member states of the United Nations in September 2015, established a specific target (defined as target 16.9) to ensure legal identity for every person by 2030. While the world was initially progressing towards that goal, COVID-19 pandemic made virtual identification a need of the hour. As our journey gets accelerated towards a new era of human identification, a world without physical ID or typical password seems not very far.