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"It was the myth of fingerprints
I’ve seen them all and man
They’re all the same"

-Paul Simon

September 18 , 2003 | feature

Hamlet beings with the words "Who goes there?" Taken out of the play’s psychological/mythic context, the phrase is actually an elegant expression of the basic duty of any security device, and it even carries connotations of that trademark security guard "politeness". The guard isn’t telling the stranger to get away, nor is he shooting first and asking questions later. His first duty is simple identification. After that, he can decide on a course of action.

All security devices have this basic function: identify who’s allowed past a certain point and who’s not, and then act accordingly. Even the key to your front door is an identification device (albeit one that performs both basic security functions).

Technology has had, and continues to have a dramatic impact on security, but until recently (i.e. the last century) all the technological upgrades focused around the second part of that equation. Instead of better ways to tell "who goes there", we simply got bigger doors, bigger walls, bigger guns.

The reasons for that particular bias in the technological developments are easy to understand: how do you determine someone’s identity, particularly if you’ve never seen them before? Though several interesting methods were tried, the main approach for centuries was simply to make the consequences of lying about your identity severe enough to provide a useful deterrent.

Nowhere were these issues more pronounced than in Europe, for reasons of simple geography. With so many borders in such a relatively small area, even medieval travelers were bound to pass through at least one other country.

The effectiveness of any identifying technology, anything that helps to answer the question "who goes there", is based upon two things: how accurately can it tell one person from another, and how easy is it to evade (or forge)?

Identification based on simple inspection was actually quite effective for many years. European border guards learned to be excellent readers of body language and accents. They would closely watch everyone passing through, listening to the way they spoke, the way they held themselves, comparing these traits to the impressive database of nationalities and ethnicities in their minds. These guards were walking computers of cultural diversity, and in those days they were the best security technology in the world. Of course, a good actor with a good working knowledge of other cultures could fool even the best of these guards. They were surprisingly accurate, but still human.

Passwords were another innovation, and they are still used today, but of all methods to identify a person or user, they are the easiest to steal. Since the judgement of the guard (or the computer system) is based solely on what response is given to the password request, if you have the password, you’re home free. ("Open sesame" could be the first example of both a password and voice recognition.)

At a certain point in European history, "Papers!" became something of a salutation, superceding and in some cases entirely dethroning "Who goes there". "Papers," were, of course, identity papers - official documents, issued by governments, complete with photograph, designed to tell whoever may have been interested that you were, indeed, who you said you were. They were the answer to a presumed question, but they were also relatively easy to forge. Some imaginative printing, photographic retouching and copied handwriting and a fake passport could be made to order. A new identity could be had for the asking (and for a considerable amount of money), and although guards quickly became skilled at detecting fakes, this method worked enough of the time that it continued to be in use for decades.

Photographs were an important innovation, but as everyone who’s had to update their passport photo knows, even the same person can change appearance drastically due to hairstyle, age and eyeglasses. (Clark Kent has used this particular method to successfully conceal his identity for over fifty years.)

The revolution in identification technology came when it was realized that there are certain fundamental biological traits that can’t be forged or stolen, that don’t change with age, and that are absolutely unique. The first of these to be identified were fingerprints, in 1864. The peculiar pattern of folds and swirls on the tips of our fingers was recognized even then as being an absolutely unique, individual trait, and within a relatively short time, it was being used by law enforcement agencies to track criminals. Although it could theoretically have been used as a unique identifier for security purposes (and indeed, fingerprints were soon added to passports), in the early years it was hardly practical. Without the help of computers, someone would literally have to sit down with a magnifying glass and painstakingly go over stacks of fingerprints in order to find a match. That process could take days, or even weeks, hardly useful for border crossings and building security.

The wonderful thing about fingerprints was that they were the first example of a "biometric" identifier. They score high on both criteria for effective security devices: they’re absolutely individually unique, and they’re impossible to steal. (Although the odd Bond villain has tried.) Biometrics revolutionized the way we thought about answering that question "who goes there".

The next big breakthrough came in 1935, when an article in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that the pattern of blood vessels on the back of the eye (the retina) could be used as a biometric identifier. It took several more years before imaging technology advanced to the point where retinal scanning was practical, many believed (and many still believe) that this is the identification process of the future. Retinal scanning has all the advantages of fingerprinting, but it’s somewhat more practical. Even before high-speed computers, photographs of retinas could be compared and matches could be made much faster than fingerprints could be identified.

The problem with retinal scanning is that it’s a very invasive technique. Many are still uncomfortable with the thought of a laser being shot into their eye each time they walk into work. This will undoubtedly change as the technology improves (lower intensity beams are one useful innovation), but there’s still something about having a machine scan your eye that’s just…creepy.

By the late 20th century, computers gave us the chance to experiment with just about every identification method under the sun. Science fiction writers speculated about which would catch on – for example, voice identification is used in 2001: A Space Odyssey (an easily stolen identification method if there ever was one), but over in the Star Trek universe, they used a combination of retinal scanning and voice ID. The fact was that at one point or another, each of these, plus a host of other technologies (such as full facial recognition and iris scanning) were developed. The security industry has yet to decide on a standard, but the oldest example of biometrics, fingerprints, may be making a comeback.

The main issue with using fingerprinting as an identification device was technological, but by now, computers have more or less eliminated that obstacle. There are numerous innovations, based on simple image scanning technology and pattern recognition software, that are giving fingerprinting the edge in the race for a standard.

Recently, the US company Bioscrypt Inc. installed automatic fingerprint readers at the Los Angeles City Hall. "The Los Angeles City Hall deployment is a prime example of how biometrics can add not only additional security, but also reduce costs and provide fast throughput," said Julia Webb, Bioscrypt’s vice president of global sales and marketing. They had already installed similar devices at the New York Police headquarters, again selling the system on its speed and accuracy.

In fact, digital fingerprint readers are ridiculously simple to use, and require little in the way of computing power (by today’s standards). (The Identix company even sells one that plugs into a laptop through a USB port.) This speed and ease of use, combined with the public’s relative comfort level with fingerprinting (as opposed to other methods) could give it the edge it needs to become the universally adopted standards.

Of course, there’s one important biometric identifier that we haven’t touched on, and many believe that it’s the real wave of the future: DNA. If there’s one thing that can never be duplicated, it’s our genome. Every living organism (except identical twins) has a unique DNA sequence, and law enforcement has made use of "DNA fingerprinting" for several years with spectacular success.

In the early days, DNA fingerprinting used a method called "Random Fragment Length Polymorphism" (RFLP), which essentially consisted of taking a sample of DNA and chopping it up with a particular set of enzymes. The sizes of the fragment were compared, and found to be unique to each individual, hence a "DNA Fingerprint". But an RFLP analysis was tedious, labor-intensive and not 100% accurate. The somewhat "low-tech" approach only indirectly addressed the essential difference between two samples (their sequence). Ideally, we’d be able to compare the actual chemical sequence of two DNA samples, set side by side, and this is in fact the approach of modern DNA fingerprinting.

Those getting visions of Gattaca, where a simple drop of blood (or other fluid) can identify a person in two seconds can relax. We’re still a long way from that sort of technology. As in the early days of fingerprinting, it still takes a relatively long time to sequence a sample of DNA, even with the help of automatic sequencers and computers. On top of that, DNA is quite fragile (ask anyone who’s ever worked in a molecular biology lab), and difficult to acquire non-invasively.

For simple identification purposes, answering the question "who goes there", it appears that old-fashioned fingerprinting will be with us for some time. It’s fast, easy and it works. In the future, maybe you won’t have to give a security or border guard your papers, just a finger.

Ian Dawe is a freelance writer and broadcaster living in London, Ontario.

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