Contactless fingerprinting uses phone cameras to capture prints

For more than 100 years, recording people’s fingerprints has involved them pressing their fingers to a surface. Originally it contained ink but has since moved to sensors embedded in scanners at airports and on phone screens. The next step of fingerprinting does not involve touching anything.

So-called contactless fingerprinting technology uses your phone’s camera and image processing algorithms to capture people’s fingerprints. Hold your hand in front of the camera lens and the software can detect and record all the lines and curves at your fingertips. The technology, which has been in development for years, is ready to be used more widely in the real world. This includes use by police – a move that concerns civil liberties and privacy groups.

Contactless fingerprinting works using several processes, says Chase Hatcher, vice president of technology at Telos, a fingerprint technology company. “Its underlying component is an image processing algorithm that works with computer vision principles to transform a photograph of the fingertip into a machine-matchable fingerprint,” Hatcher says.

Hatcher says that in order to collect one’s fingerprints correctly, a person’s hand needs to be about five centimeters away from the phone’s camera. From here, the company’s machine learning algorithms identify your fingers and process the image. The system, Hatcher says, is able to detect the streaks that define your fingerprint by identifying shadow and light areas. “We need a camera that has autofocus,” Hatcher says. It is possible to extract fingerprints using a phone camera with a resolution as low as two megapixels. The result is a traditional fingerprint image, which can then be matched against an existing database.

Last week, Telos was announced as the joint winner of a US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) competition that looked at the performance of contactless fingerprinting systems and how they could be used by law enforcement. According to a report by Industry Head biometric updateThe results indicate that the technology is ready for a wider rollout.

Contactless fingerprints are just one part of the rapidly growing biometrics industry, which sells ways to collect and process the data our bodies create. Biometrics can include facial recognition, the way you walk, the pattern of nerves in your wrist, and the way you make sounds. Technologies are being used to help you prove your identity when changing passwords and opening a new bank account, among other things. Biometrics is a big business, with some estimates saying the market could be worth $127 billion by 2030.

Despite the rise in biometric technology, this may prove controversial. Theft or spoofing of fingerprints and other biometric information can lead to fraud and identity theft. Some lawmakers in Europe are pushing for a ban on the use of biometric technology to identify people in public places – saying such surveillance technology could be the “end of anonymity”.

Shweta Mohandas, a lawyer who works on privacy issues at the non-profit Center for Internet and Society in India, says any new technology must face privacy and harm-impact assessments before they can be widely used. “More worrying issues will be when these technologies are imported into developing economies, which have neither standards nor a strong data protection law to protect people from harm,” says Mohandas.

Despite recent progress, research about contactless fingerprints is not new. Several companies are developing the technology—about half a dozen were listed as winners in various categories in the NIST competition. A recent study by researchers in Germany found that contactless fingerprinting can be as accurate as more traditional fingerprinting. “Submitted usability studies show that most users prefer a contactless identification system to a contact-based one for hygienic reasons,” write the researchers. “Furthermore, the usability of the contactless capturing device was seen as slightly superior.”

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