Fingerprint Scanners : Why They Are Gaining in Popularity
A fingerprint scanner is a type of electronic security system that uses fingerprints for biometric authentication to grant user access to information or to approve transactions.
It used to be that fingerprint scanners were mostly seen in movies and TV shows, or read about in science fiction novels. But such times of imagination surpassing human engineering ability has been long gone – fingerprint scanners have been in use for decades! Not only are fingerprint scanners becoming more commonplace in the latest mobile devices, but they’re gradually making headway into everyday life. Here’s what you should know about fingerprint scanners and how they work.
What Are Fingerprint Scanners (a.k.a. Finger Scanners)?
Human fingerprints are practically unique, which is why they’re successful at identifying individuals. It’s not just law enforcement agencies that collect and maintain databases of fingerprints. Many types of occupations that require professional licensing or certification (e.g. financial advisors, stock brokers, real estate agents, teachers, doctors/nurses, security, contractors, etc.) mandate fingerprinting as a condition of employment. It’s also typical to provide fingerprints when having documents notarized.
Advancements in technology have been able to incorporate fingerprint scanners (can also be referred to as ‘readers’ or ‘sensors’) as another (optional) security feature for mobile devices. Fingerprint scanners are one of the latest in an ever-growing list – pin codes, pattern codes, passwords, face recognition, location detection, iris scanning, voice recognition, trusted Bluetooth/NFC connection – of ways to lock and unlock smartphones. Why use a fingerprint scanner? Many enjoy it for the security, convenience, and futuristic feel.
Fingerprint scanners work by capturing the pattern of ridges and valleys on a finger. The information is then processed by the device’s pattern analysis/matching software, which compares it to the list of registered fingerprints on file. A successful match means that an identity has been verified, thereby granting access. The method of capturing fingerprint data depends on the type of scanner being used:
- Optical Sensor: These types of scanners basically make a photocopy of the finger. Many illuminate the finger in order to deliver crisp contrast of lines as the light-sensitive scanner (usually an image sensor or light-sensitive microchip) records the information to produce a digital image. Many PC-connected fingerprint scanners use optical sensors.
- Capacitive Sensor: Instead of light, capacitive scanners use electricity (think of the way touchscreens work) to determine fingerprint patterns. As a finger rests on the touch-capacitive surface, the device measures the charge; ridges exhibit a change in capacitance, while valleys produce practically no change at all. The sensor uses all this data to accurately map out prints. Most all smartphones with fingerprint scanners use capacitive sensors.
- Ultrasonic Sensor: Similar to how bats and dolphins use echolocation to find and identify objects, ultrasonic scanners work via sound waves. The hardware is designed to send out ultrasonic pulses and measure how much bounces back. Ridges and valleys reflect sound differently, which is how ultrasonic scanners are able to create a detailed 3D map of fingerprint patterns. Ultrasonic sensors are currently being prototyped (e.g. by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.) and tested for use in mobile devices
You might be staring at your fingertips right now, wondering just how scanners can so quickly determine a match or not. Decades of work have led to the classification of fingerprint minutiae – the elements that make our fingerprints unique. Although there are over a hundred different characteristics that come into play, fingerprint analysis basically boils down to plotting the points of where ridges end abruptly and fork into two branches (and the direction).
Combine that information with the orientation of general fingerprint patterns – arches, loops, and whorls – and you have a pretty reliable way of identifying individuals. Fingerprint scanners incorporate all of these data points into templates, which are used whenever biometric authentication is required. More data collected helps to ensure greater accuracy (and speed) when comparing different sets of prints.
Fingerprint Scanners in Everyday Life
The Motorola Atrix was the first smartphone to incorporate a fingerprint scanner, way back in 2011. Since then, many more smartphones have incorporated this technological feature. Examples include (but are not limited to) the: Apple iPhone 5S, Apple iPad models, Apple iPhone 7, Samsung Galaxy S5, Huawei Honor 6X, Huawei Honor 8 PRO, OnePlus 3T, OnePlus 5, and Google Pixel. It’s likely that more mobile devices will support fingerprint scanners as time goes on, especially since you can already find fingerprint scanners in many everyday objects.
When it comes to PC security, there are plenty of fingerprint-scanning options, some of which can be found already integrated into certain laptop models. Most of the readers you can purchase separately connect with a USB cable and are compatible with both desktop and laptop system (typically Windows OS, but also macOS). Some readers are closer in shape and size to that of USB flash drives – in fact, some USB flash drives have a built-in fingerprint scanner to grant access to the data stored inside!
You can find biometric door locks that use fingerprint scanners in addition to touchscreen/keypads for manual entry. Biometric car starter kits, installed in vehicles as an aftermarket accessory, use fingerprint scanners to add another layer of security. There’s fingerprint-scanning padlocks and safes, too. And if you ever plan a trip to Universal Studios, you can rent a free storage locker that uses fingerprints instead of physical keys or cards. Other theme parks, such as Walt Disney World, scan fingerprints upon entry in order to combat ticket fraud.