As easy as scanning a fingerprint

Ben Johnson and Meg Cramer Feb 26, 2015
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As easy as scanning a fingerprint

Ben Johnson and Meg Cramer Feb 26, 2015
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We’re taking one of our regular opportunities to go back to Back to the Future Part II. The 1989 movie predicted a number of technological advances that would be around in 2015. And now that the real 2015 is here, we are exploring whether or not some of that predicted tech has arrived.

Today, we take a look at biometrics, as in using retinas and fingerprints for identification or passwords. In Back to the Future’s vision of 2015, fingerprint scanners are all over the place. The technology is used to identify people, collect payments, and open locked doors.

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, Chief Technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, says we shouldn’t assume that life will fully imitate art.

“Frankly I don’t think we’ll ever be there and we shouldn’t be there. The problem with these kinds of things, in terms of allowing you access to your home, is that your fingerprint is not secret. If someone were able to produce a fake finger or cut your finger off, they may be able to gain access to your house. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t change your fingerprints easily,” he says.

So you’re saying as a security technology it’s not all that useful?

It’s very usable. The trick is that it’s really best as an addition onto some other thing, be it a passcode on a mobile platform, or a token you may have, like a security key fob or something like that. There are systems that use harder to spoof biometrics like vein patterns in your hand. That’s extremely hard to reproduce, very detailed and highly identifying.

Are there privacy issues that come up as we use our biology to identify us and to give us access?

Holding your biometric data can be a privacy problem. If it leaks out, then someone who needs to reconstruct your fingerprint or your facial pattern can do that, but luckily most companies do a very similar thing to how we work with passwords. You don’t store password as you type them. The iPhone, forr example doesn’t store your fingerprint. It stores some abstraction of your fingerprint that’s very hard to back out into your actual fingerprint. So if someone were to get into your phone they couldn’t actually steal your fingerprint.

We have talked about other technologies in the movie, like fax machines, that seemed futuristic at the time, but now sort of belong in the past. Would you put fingerprint scanners in that category?

No. I think that was pretty prescient. They identified something we would be using right around the time when they went “back to the future” the second time. I do think they were overzealous in how ubiquitous fingerprint scanning would be. We are a little more careful with how we use these things.

Is there a piece of technology from Back to the Future Part II that you want us to highlight? Send your ideas to delorianhistorians@gmail.com

 

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