Although fingerprint recognition is one of the dominant biometric technologies available today, it is very important to take an objective view of it, from the standpoint of its advantages and disadvantages. Remember, biometric technology is just that— another type of security tool. It has its fair share of flaws just like anything else. Therefore, it is critical to examine these variables as well. 

By looking at the advantages and disadvantages of any biometric system, as a C-Level Executive, you will be in a much better position to make the best procurement decision possible. The advantages and disadvantages of fingerprint recognition will be examined from seven different perspectives, which are as follows:

  • Universality: Every human being has fingerprints. And, although most of the world’s population can technically be enrolled into a fingerprint recognition system, a small fraction cannot, and thus, a manual system must be put into place to confirm the identity of these particular individuals.
  • Uniqueness: The uniqueness of the fingerprint is essentially written by the DNA code which we inherit from our parents. As a result, even identical twins are deemed to have different fingerprint structures. Although the uniqueness of the fingerprint is accepted worldwide, there have been no concrete scientific studies to prove this hypothesis. So, the uniqueness of the fingerprint is still in theory only, until it is supported by hardcore scientific tests.
  • Permanence:  Although the basic features of a fingerprint do not change as we age over time, the fingerprint is still very much prone to degradation from conditions which exist in the external environment, such as cuts, contact with corrosive chemicals, etc..
  • Collectability:  This refers to the collection of the actual raw image of a fingerprint. But unlike other biometric technologies (especially the contactless methods), fingerprint recognition can be affected by several key variables which can degrade the quality of the raw image(s) collected. These variables include moist, oily, and dirty fingers; excessive direct pressure (this is pressing the finger too hard on the sensor) as well as rotational pressure (when the finger rolls side to side on the sensor); dirt and oil left on the sensor; as well as residual fingerprint left by previous users (also known as latent fingerprints). Another disadvantage is that fingerprint recognition requires very close contact on part of the end user, thus rendering this technology almost useless for high level surveillance and identification (one-to-many) applications.
  • Performance: This is composed of two variables:  Accuracy, and the ability to meet the specific requirements of the customer. The accuracy of a fingerprint recognition system is based upon such factors as the number of fingers which are used for both verification and identification applications; the quality and robustness of the matching algorithms utilized; and the size of the database which holds the fingerprint biometric templates. Under this performance umbrella, fingerprint recognition offers several key advantages:
    • The large number of vendors in the marketplace translates to much lower pricing when compared to the products and solutions of other biometric vendors.
    • Since fingerprint recognition is probably the most widely used biometric technology, this translates into easy training programs for the end user(s).
    • The size of the biometric template (both enrollment and verification templates) is very small, in the range of 250 bytes to 1 kilobyte.
    • Due to the advancements in fingerprint recognition technology, very small sensors have been created, thus allowing for this technology to be used on small portable devices like netbooks and smartphones.
  • Acceptability:  This evaluation criteria involves the degree to which fingerprint recognition can be accepted by society as a whole. While most of the world’s population accepts fingerprint recognition, there are also serious objections to using it, and are described as follows:
    • Privacy Rights: This is where the use of fingerprint biometric templates falls outside of their intended uses, which further results in the degradation of the sense of anonymity.
    • Concerns over hygiene: All fingerprint biometric systems require direct, human contact with the sensor. For example, the sensor can become contaminated with germs from other users of the system, which can be easily transmitted.
    • The strong association between fingerprints and criminal activity. This is so because fingerprints have been the hallmark of law enforcement for the past number of centuries.
    • Resistance to circumvention: This refers to the point as to how well a fingerprint biometric system is hack proof. Meaning, to what degree can a biometric system be resistant to security threats and risks posed to it from outside third parties. While fingerprint recognition is mostly hacker proof, it does possess a few vulnerabilities. Probably the biggest flaw is that of latent fingerprints which can be left behind in a sensor. As a result, these latent prints can be used to produce what is known as “dummy prints,” and these could be used to possibly fool a biometric system. But keep in mind that while this scenario is a possibility, all fingerprint biometric systems require that a live fingerprint be read, meaning one that is supported with a temperature, electrical conductivity, and blood flow. This greatly reduces the risk of spoofing.

Market Applications of Fingerprint Recognition

Because fingerprint recognition is the most widely used biometric technology, it serves many market applications. Here are a few examples of its enormous breadth and depth:

  • Forensics: The most common example is that of capturing latent fingerprints.
  • Administration of government benefits: The goal here is to verify the identity of people who are entitled to receive government benefits and entitlements with 100% accuracy, and to make sure that said benefits are properly received.
  • Use in financial transactions: Fingerprint recognition is the most widely used for accessing cash at ATM machines worldwide and allowing for cashless transactions. This works by associating the identity of a verified individual to that of a checking or savings account (or any other source of funds) from which money can be withdrawn, after the fingerprint is presented to the biometric system. A perfect example is the use of fingerprint recognition systems at grocery stores. For example, some grocery stores allow customers to pay for their products with a mere scan of their finger. The amount is then subsequently deducted from the customer’s checking account which is tied to their biometric template.
  • Physical and Logical Access:  This is probably the biggest market application for fingerprint recognition systems. Physical access refers to gaining access into buildings, or other secured areas from within inside a physical infrastructure. Logical access refers to gaining access to computer networks, corporate intranets, and computers and laptops themselves. In this regard, fingerprint recognition is the most widely used technology for Single Sign On Solutions (also known as SSO’s). Instead of having to enter a password, one must simply present their fingerprint to the device, and in less than one second that individual can be logged into their computer.

Case Study #1: “A Biometric System For Iraqi Border Control”

There is no doubt that the recent war in Iraq has left the country with many security holes and lapses, very often using very manual and traditional methods of tracking individuals who are entering and exiting the country. Such was the case in a situation in the Iraqi Kurdistan province of Sulaymaniyah. Before looking for a much more sophisticated solution, border control agents were manually checking in and recording the information and data of visitors entering the province.

All of the administrative processes (especially the paperwork) were done by hand, and the average time to process each visitor took an average of 15-20 minutes. Imagine if you will, if there were hundreds upon hundreds of visitors wishing to enter the province; this would cause an administrative nightmare.

There were also grave concerns that these manual methods were not properly confirming a visitor’s true identity, and that insurgents and terrorists could very easily penetrate through the existing security infrastructure. As a result, government officials looked for a much better security solution, including  biometrics, especially that of fingerprint recognition, to create their own type of AFIS system.

Over time, government officials subsequently installed 100 fingerprint recognition systems, with options to expand up to 400 additional fingerprint recognition systems. Also, the Kurdistan government implemented a web-based border control management system to record all of the information and data pertaining to the visitors entering and exiting Kurdistan. All this information and data is uploaded to central servers, for ease of access and storage.

The benefits of this new biometrics-based system are obvious, and are as follows:

  • Increased staff productivity of up to 70%
  • Great minimization in the processing of paperwork and the registration of visitors
  • A 100% conversion from manual methods to automated and electronic-based tracking systems

The entire biometric system is now controlled by the Kurdistan government, greatly reducing terrorist activities such as Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s), and other types and kinds of insurgent activities. [Source 1]

Case Study #2: “Tracking Millions of Inmates and Visitors at U.S. Jails and Correctional Facilities”

It is known that the United States has one of the largest prison populations in the world. In fact, there are more than 2 million American adults incarcerated in the prison systems, at all three levels:  Federal, State, and Local (County). In virtually all of these correctional facilities, the traditional methods of keeping track of inmates have created a gigantic problem, especially with prison overcrowding occurring on an almost daily basis, as well understaffing of the personnel required to monitor the inmates who are incarcerated.

Some of the problems associated with the traditional methods of fingerprint recognition include the following:

  •  Inmate booking
  • Medicine distribution for the inmates
  • Location and tracking of inmates
  • Releasing of unauthorized inmates due to human error
  • The swapping of ID bracelets with other inmates.

As a result of these major problems, the United States prison system has explored other means by which to automate its current systems, and to totally replace the manual methods that have caused such headaches and hassles. Of course, biometrics was looked upon as the primary technology, and although not every incarceration facility has utilized biometrics, many have implemented fingerprint recognition with great success.

These biometric implementations have resulted in immediate improvements including:

  • The duplication of booking entries has been eliminated.
  • ID fraud (especially that of swapping prison bracelets) has been eliminated.
  • A foolproof, 100% accurate method of tracking the movements of inmates has been implemented.
  • The confirmation and verification of the right inmate has also been implemented.
  • Incarceration facilities can now be assured that the same person who was booked and incarcerated is the same person who is being released.
  • The problem of booking prisoners using the identity of another inmate (or even a close relative) has been greatly eliminated. (This was a huge nightmare when the old-fashioned methods of using fingerprint images stored on cards were used.)
  • The time involved in making a positive identification of a particular inmate has been greatly reduced.
  • The problem of releasing the wrong inmate has also been 100% curtailed, because now, fingerprint recognition offers a means by which to double check the identity of a certain inmate. When the traditional methods were used in the past, a lot of money and time had to be spent recapturing the right inmate and subsequently correcting the inmate records.

It should be noted that many prisons have also implemented the use of facial recognition and iris recognition, either separately or as a multimodal security solution.

Up Next:The next article in this series will examine the most controversial biometric technology of all: facial recognition.


  1. M2SYS, LLC

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Ravi Das is a Cybersecurity Consultant and Business Development Specialist. He also does Cybersecurity Consulting through his private practice, RaviDas Tech, Inc. He also possesses the Certified in Cybersecurity (CC) cert from the ISC2.

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