While the field of biometrics may seem to be an emerging
technology, biometrics history clearly
dates back to 2500 years ago. While it advanced slowly
for its first couple of millennia, things started to pick up
in the middle of the 18th century with the rediscovery of
fingerprinting. From then on, the field continued to find
new biometric data sources. The computer age of biometrics
began in the 1960s and has continued to the present day.
One of the first entries in the history of biometrics
occurred in Babylonia around 2500 years ago. Clay tablets
containing business records had fingerprints as signatures.
Egyptian traders used physical descriptions to keep track of
each other and identify reliable trading partners. In China,
fingerprints were not only used in business transactions,
but also as a means of telling children apart.
The field hobbled along for a couple of thousand years
until the urbanization of American and Europe and
formalization of justice systems in the middle of the
nineteenth century. These two items created a greater need
to track and confirm identities. The French developed the
Bertillon system, which used body measurements to
characterize people. Fingerprints emerged throughout the
world, with the Henry system of identifying them by tracking
patterns and ridges developed in 1896 and gaining widespread
acceptance in 1899. This system remains in existence today
and supplanted the Bertillon system.
In the first half of the twentieth century, fingerprints
were the only biometric measure used. Starting with their
use in the New York State prison system in 1903 and at
Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in 1904, they continued to
grow in popularity. The FBI formally got into the field of
fingerprint identification after their
Identification Division was created by Congress in 1921.
Fingerprint technology continued to advance in the latter
half of the 1900's. Studies on automating the process were
first published in the early 1960's, and an FBI push towards
automation in 1969 and funding of sensor development in 1975
really advanced the field. By 1994, the FBI began developing
an automated identification system that went into production
Although iris scans may seem like the province of science
fiction movies, the idea of the iris scan was actually
first proposed in 1936. After the idea that every iris
is unique was floated in 1985, an iris identification patent
was awarded in 1987 leading to the development of a
prototype scanner in 1993. While the technology existed, an
algorithm to actually perform the scan was not patented
until 1994 and released commercially a year later.
To many people, facial recognition systems are the sine
qua non of biometrics. Believe it or not, the first facial
recognition system was developed by
Dr. Woodrow Bledsoe in the 1960's. Working with
photographs, a version of the software refined at Stanford
was able to find similar faces from a database of 2000 at a
higher rate of accuracy than human searchers. Additional
research in the 1970's further advanced the field.
In 1991, the first real time face recognition systems
came online. This led to the US government's FERET face
recognition system in 1993 and paved the way for modern face
recognition systems. They had a less-than-stellar public
debut at the Tampa Super Bowl in 2001 where they generated a
number of false positive readings.
Today the technology has advanced significantly. Airports
use facial recognition systems to spot terrorists, and
border crossings use them to identify illegal aliens.
Casinos have built them into their surveillance systems to
spot both cheaters and problem gamblers. Advertisers are now
using them to target in-mall billboards and theme parks are
using them to
identify pass holders (see video below). Facebook even
uses the technology to make it easier for people to
photos of their friends.
While some people are concerned about the Big
Brother-like impacts of biometric technology, it also
promises to improve life in countless ways. Biometrics can
make advertising more interesting, business move more
quickly, and they can make society safer. Furthermore, they
have already been doing this for 2500 years.