Using an electronic fingerprint to access a cash machine

Alphanumeric appearance

Each of us is unique. Technology is now providing new ways to capture and record that uniqueness

In 1902 Harry Jackson became the first British criminal to be successfully linked to a crime – stealing billiard balls – by his fingerprint. Fingerprints are unique to individuals and have been an invaluable aid to crime fighters the world over. Francis Galton played a key role in establishing a scientific basis for fingerprinting.

More than 100 years on, fingerprints remain a mainstay of individual identification. But other approaches are gradually being introduced. Iris patterns are also unique and iris-recognition technology is increasingly being used, at UK airports for example.

Our DNA is also a unique identifier, and the National DNA Database has a huge store of records of convicted criminals and suspects. It has been used to identify the source of biological material found at crime scenes.

There are hopes that a better understanding of the links between genes and phenotype could improve the predictive power of the database – so that a DNA sample could reveal key information about a suspect, such as hair colour, eye colour, height or ethnic group. At the moment this predictive power is very limited. Information stored in the database is derived from non-coding regions of the genome, so provides no biological information.

Meanwhile, automated face recognition has become a reality. By 2009 ten UK airports were already operating trial systems for matching passengers’ faces to their passport photos. During the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2012, the airport in Sochi used 3D cameras for facial recognition – these were a security precaution after the organisers received terrorist threats.

Security fears are the principal motivation for biometric identification. Being able to identify individuals instantly provides a way to control entry of people into (or around) countries. It has other obvious uses in crime fighting.

On the other hand, not everyone is keen on being so closely monitored by the state. Once authorities know who we are, they potentially have access to a wide range of information about us. This immediately raises issues of privacy and access to information.

These new technologies are all based on the conversion of human appearance into a unique digital representation. Once this is done, the speed and power of computers can be applied to share, analyse and manipulate data. A computer can do little with a photo, say, but once it has been converted into a digital form that maintains a unique link to the photo’s subject, a whole new world opens up.

Lead image:

Toshiyuki IMAI/Flickr CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Statistics and maths, Genetics and genomics, Biotechnology and engineering
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development