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Biometrics in the COVID-19 Era

Biometrics in the COVID-19 Era

Mohammed MuraAccess control is undergoing significant changes in the COVID-19 era. It’s no longer enough for public and private organizations to provide access to buildings, critical infrastructure and more based solely on the possession of a plastic access control card.

With infections rising in many states, employers want �“ and need �“ to know who has contracted and recovered from the virus. This group of immune employees, vendors and customers may return to work without social distancing. The problem is, how do you accurately identify these people? Health cards indicating immunity are one possibility. However, cards can be lost, stolen or lent to another person. Biometrics, however, offer a convenient, quick and accurate solution. 

Once people have recovered from the virus, they can enroll a biometric, typically a fingerprint, facial or iris scan, with their local health agency. Those agencies then issue health cards with chips containing a template of the owner’s biometric to compare with a live sample as employees report to work. Perhaps soon, these same systems will authenticate people inoculated by a vaccine.

Ways biometrics are used in response to the pandemic

As COVID-19 spreads through correctional facilities, many non-violent prisoners are granted early releases. Biometrics eliminate mistaken identities based on similar names or appearances. One of the nation’s most populous counties is using an iris-based system to confirm prisoner identities before release.

Business layoffs have led to a greater demand for government-sponsored social programs. Biometrics can eliminate fraud to ensure limited funding is going to people in need. An excellent example already exists in India, where more than one billion people are enrolled in a national iris-based ID program covering employment, medical, financial and other services with more than four million identity authentication requests processed daily.

More people working from home also presents added challenges to enterprise computer networks. Enrolling employees in a biometric database and then linking portable readers to home computers adds a vital second security layer. A 2019 recommendation by an FBI cyber task force urged organizations to add biometrics to their ID authentication processes.

In the health care vertical, providers improve outcomes and limit mistakes by using handheld non-contact biometric systems to ensure patients are accurately identified before beginning treatments or administering drugs. 

Facility managers, additionally, face new challenges as employees shy away from touching devices that aren’t disinfected between uses. Contactless solutions, such as facial and iris scans, work with doors and elevators. Doors open automatically after a biometric scan confirms an authorized person; elevator bank readers authenticate employees before calling a car to take them to their floor; and visitors are accommodated by voice controls.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently lists person-to-person spread as the primary cause of COVID-19 transmission. However, the CDC website cites surface contact as another possible way of catching the virus. 

One leading market research firm recently concluded that as sales of contact fingerprint readers fall, face and iris recognition systems have emerged as crucial contactless technologies for authentication, identification and surveillance operations, even though new, non-contact fingerprint readers are entering the market, but at a much higher cost. 

Biometrics and PPE

People wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, masks and goggles, hinder the accuracy of fingerprint and facial recognition systems. Facial-based technology has also been hurt by a 2019 study by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that found facial recognition systems misidentified people of color up to 100 times as often as white males. Civil libertarians also object to matches made through private databases that access more than three billion photos taken from social media and other online sites.

Contactless, iris-based systems are not affected by people wearing PPE. A person’s iris patterns are formed during the first year of life, enabling children to be enrolled in databases for identity verification. Also, iris-based solutions are the only opt-in technology among the three leading biometric technologies. However, relatively small iris databases limit law enforcement’s ability to identify and authenticate as many people as fingerprint and facial scans. 


Soon, expect to see less expensive contactless fingerprint readers on the market. Local, state and federal legislatures are considering new laws to limit potential abuses of facial recognition as iris databases continue to grow daily.

Also, don’t be surprised to see two or more of these biometric technologies used simultaneously at mission-critical locations. Current security best practices remind us that no one technology fits all the ever-changing demands for identity authentication. 

The COVID-19 era will be remembered as the time biometrics, long considered a futuristic technology, joined the security industry’s mainstream.

(Mohammed Murad is vice president, global sales and business development, Iris ID.)


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