Primal Numbers – When I’m 64

In the world of the future you can forget your passwords. In fact, you can probably forget all about passwords themselves. That’s because biometrics are quickly replacing them. But as we hand our security over to machines, there’s a very human fly in the ointment: we won’t look the same when we’re 64.

At first blush, biometrics seem like the foolproof answer to that annoying problem of fallible human memory. Instead of remembering passwords for our computers or PINs for our bank cards, we can simply forget all those numbers and let the digital scanners read our palms and irises.

After all, hackers can’t trick you into giving up your palm scan the same way they can steal a password, right? And that iris scanner to unlock your front door is far more secure than a key that might be lost or copied.

Well, not exactly. There are plenty of security issues with biometric security (including the ease of lifting someone’s fingerprints, as this Guradian article reveals). But let’s set those arguments aside for a second and look at the real number that could cause you some biometric headaches: your age.

Suppose you’re a 20-something university student. Your library has a scan of your iris, making it easy to use the latest tech to check out your books. At your favourite restaurant, the fingerprint scanner lets you pay without digging through your pockets for cash or a credit card. And grabbing a coffee or hitting the ATM is fast?just let the palm reader verify the pattern of veins in your hand and you’ve got access to your accounts. (Yes, vein recognition is a real thing. As LiveScience reports, banks in Japan have been using it for years.)

All’s well in the land of biometrics as you ease into your thirties and maybe even your forties. But then nature starts catching up with you. Your skin gets thicker. Veins become pronounced. That record of your vein pattern at the bank? Maybe there are enough differences between the original version and your current scan that it shuts you out of the ATM.

But surely, you think, your eyes haven’t changed since you got that iris scan done. Surprisingly, they probably have. That’s because, just like the rest of your physical self, your irises change over time. As Nature reports, there will always be a small probability of error in readings. Assuming that an iris hasn’t changed since it was first scanned, the probability is about 1 in 2 million of getting what’s known as a false match.

However, during a three-year study, researchers found that the false-match rate “increased by 153% over the three years.” That’s probably not a big deal when you’re checking out library books. But some countries, including the UK and the United Arab Emirates, use iris scans as part of border security. And that could turn out to be a much bigger deal if a scanner decides you’re not who you say you are.

There’s no denying that biometric security features are useful tools. In some ways they’re far superior to passwords and traditional identification methods. But we need to remember that, just like machines, the human body alters in countless subtle ways over time.

For the system to work well, it needs to account for that before we allow machines to lock us out of libraries, smartphones, or foreign countries. A reasonable guideline might be that a fingerprint, palm scan, or retina image expires after 10 years. There could even be a scanning centre where you update your profile just like your driver’s license.

Otherwise, the tricorder at your doctor’s office might not recognize you by the time you’re 64.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.

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