tech nomad

How fingerprints are unlocking the future

AP file photo

I admit, this is a weird place to be telling you this — but your touch? It’s like no one else’s.

And I’m not just saying that. If there’s anything that makes each one of us a special snowflake, it’s our fingerprints. This most primary of all biometrics seems positively old-fashioned these days — conjuring inky-fingered bank robbers or scene-dusting detectives in black-and-white movies. But our fingerprints are actually more in touch with the times than ever.

Around this time last year, I was experiencing a mini-freakout over the quite literally eye-opening rise of iris-scanning technology across the field of biometrics — appearing everywhere from smartphone prototypes to border crossings. Around the same time just one year prior, I was struggling to balance my trepidations over facial recognition technology against my desire “for my face to be as powerful as my phone.”


Biometrics are tricky — they accommodate the demand for speed and efficiency stoked by on-demand culture, but they cross that line we imagine between our living, breathing bodies and, you know, The Matrix. There’s something about a computer reading your face that strikes many casual consumers as unsettling..

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Fingerprints are arguably just as personal a feature — their tiny systems of tactile ridges are technically more intimate and invasive than any touchless scan. But our long cultural history with and understanding of fingerprints as a form of identification, and the term’s metaphorical life as a synonym for the unique mark of an individual, have together contributed to our unconscious comfort with fingerprints as unwitting signatures, our most traceable traces.

It also helps that they’re, well, at our fingertips. For feats where high dexterity and high security come together — e.g. unlocking one’s iPhone — the advent of fingerprint recognition had all the marks of the obvious and overdue. This comfort extended to using the increasingly standard sensors on our smartphones for any number of functions, from purchasing apps and products, to locking up diary entries and locking down camera rolls.

And as phone manufacturers continue to refine smartphones, the role of the fingerprint will grow more common and more crucial.

Both Apple and Samsung are reportedly working on advanced fingerprint recognition systems for as-yet unreleased (and button-free) models of their most popular devices — with Samsung struggling against its own schedule and plunking the sensor inexplicably on the back of its recent S8. Meanwhile, the Chinese company Vivo has already launched under-the-display technology that can read fingerprints through glass, aluminum, and OLED using ultrasonic sound waves. (No specific product featuring this tech has yet been announced.)


And fingerprints are making a mark well beyond the smartphone realm. A rudimentary scanner is one of many filthy things I must touch at my gym, for instance. And you may have already been enraged at the airport observing yet another line moving faster than yours.

The biometrics firm Clear has arrived at 22 airports, and offers expedited security screening for $179 to passengers who submit to fingerprint and retina scans. “Our goal is to have it as a part of the customer’s check-in experience, from baggage check through the clubs and onto the gate,” a Delta official told Yahoo.

Fingerprints will also find liberation from the smartphone in the payment space. Mastercard is trying out credit cards with a fingerprint reader embedded in the corner of the card itself, allowing for a portable device-free mode of authentication. And the Singapore-based startup Touche just bankrolled $2 million toward its device, which allows retailers to link customers’ cards to their prints for far faster checkouts.

Certainly, all of this thumb-upping the fingerprint could just be temporary while the patents and prototypes for iris- and facial-recognition technologies work out their many kinks; but there’s something about the fingerprint that seems stubbornly set on sticking around.

And as the technofuture pulls us further into virtual space, there’s something kind of comforting about having a human touch unlock its many passages — a skeleton key minus the key.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at Follow him on Tiwtter @MBrodeur.