What is biometric identification?
Credit: imelenchon, morguefile.com

Since the recent revelations of government surveillance programs, there has been an increased unease when it comes to what types of data the government collects. One major type of data is known collectively as biometrics includes the procedure, systems, and technology associated with the identification of human beings by their unchanging physical and behavioral characteristics.[1] This article explains the background and details of biometric data collection and identification.

Categories and Uses of Biometrics

A biometric identification encompasses one of three categories of characteristics beginning with anatomical traits. These are the most common and oldest forms of identification which include the physical traits of a person such as facial features and fingerprints. These are the most widely implemented in the identification process. The second category of traits is biological which includes blood type, DNA, and even scent.[2] Most commonly, these identifying traits are utilized in forensic investigations. The final category is behavioral. This is the least implemented and most revolutionary area of biometrics. It involves the analysis of patterns of behavior such as voice recognition, handwriting, and even the way an individual walks.[3]

Although it is vital to the survival of modern societies, the ability to identify individuals is extremely difficult because most features of the human body are constantly changing, human error inhibits positive identifications, and there is an enormous amount of information required to identify individual members of a complex population.[4] With these obstacles, identification of individuals has become a nearly impossible task without the aid of modern science.

Early Methods of Biometric Identification

To overcome common failings in identification, law enforcement has turned to modern technology to provide more accurate methods of identification beginning in the nineteenth century. It was during this time period that photography was first used as a means of identification. However, the photographs were not systematically stored and subjects were often uncooperative, creating a convoluted stockpile of unusable data.[5] Facial contortions of subjects often made photographs completely useless for identification purposes.

When photography was deemed inadequate, Aphonse Bertillon, a French policeman developed a system in the 1880s known as anthropometry.[6] In order to make identifications, multiple measurements of individuals were taken and catalogued in a system of files for later reference. It was this systematic approach of taking precise measurements and filing them in a retrievable manner that made this method of identification revolutionary. However, these measurements were not completely accurate and the anthropometry fell into disuse.

After the failures of previous systems of identification, authorities looked to fingerprint identification, the most reliable and widely implemented means of identification. While the existence of fingerprints has been known since ancient times, attempts at identifying individuals solely by their fingerprints were first made in 1880.[7] Later, efforts to systematically categorize and develop a system of identification based on fingerprints were made in colonial India.[8] Eventually Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, devised a system of categorizing fingerprints based on details (minutia) in the ridges of fingers is still used today. [9]

Making the Comparison

All of this raw data collected for future comparisons is stored in a central database. When an individual needs to be verified or identified, his or her traits are compared to those stored in the system which determines identifying a series of identifying characteristics. A comparison of these minutia points can be used to either identify an individual or verify his or her identity.[10] A characteristic such as a retinal pattern is given and compared against the known retinal pattern of the given individual to verify her identity.  In summary, biometrics compares the known characteristics of an individual with those of an unknown to determine a match.

Modern Uses

Recently, policy makers have looked to biometric identification technology (biometrics) as a means of counterterrorism. In today’s post-9/11 world and specifically the United States, the ability to identify individuals has never been more important. While fingerprint comparison is one area of biometrics, the term includes all means of identifying a person by his or her unique characteristics. Today these methods encompass multiple technological innovations that allow for the accurate identification of a subject.

By implementing biometrics at border crossings and points of entry, officials hope to prevent potential threats from entering the country and thus denying them access to targets. Biometrics has useful applications in law enforcement, corrections, and private security. In the future, because of its reliability, efficiency, and practicality, biometrics will prove an effective means of counterterrorism and border security by increasing the efficiency of law enforcement and security personnel at access control points to critical targets. While this is by no means a silver bullet solution to the problems of crime and terrorism, it is another tool to make law enforcement more efficient.


[1] Maguire, Mark. 2009. “The Birth of Biometric Technology.” Anthropology Today. 25(2):9.

[2] Moradoff, Nissan. 2010. “Biometrics: Proliferation and constraints to emerging and new technologies.” Security Journal. 23(4):278.

[3] Moradoff, 278.

[4] Gates, Kelly A. 2005. “Biometrics and Post-9/11 Technostalgia.” Social Text. 23(2):39.

[5] Maguire, 11-12.

[6] Gates, 40-41.

[7] Wise, Jeff. 2004. “Under the Microscope:Legal Challenges to Fingerprints and DNA as Methods of Forensic Identification.” International Review of Law Computers and Technology. 18(3):426.

[8] Maguire, 10.

[9] Maguire, 12.

[10] Petermann, Thomas, Arnold Sauter, and Constanze Scherz. 2006. “Biometrics at the Borders – the Challenges of a Political Technology.” International Review of Law Computers & Technology. 20(1&2):156.