The history of biometrics
What comes to mind when you think of biometrics? A fingerprint scanner? Taking a selfie to unlock your smartphone? While these are certainly commonly found in modern applications, biometrics first originated millennia ago — in fact, the earliest account is dated back to the Babylonian empire in 500 BC. However, biometrics back then look much different than their recent history.
By “recent”, we mean from the 1800s until 2020. This is where we’re focusing our attention in this guide: how biometrics have evolved over the last two centuries.
Table of Contents
How It All Began
When you examine the etymology of the word “biometrics,” you can break it down into two Greek words — “bio,” which means life, and “metrics,” which means to measure. Automated biometric solutions have only been available during the last few decades, following huge advances in computer processing capabilities. However, many of these modern automated techniques are based on ideas that originated hundreds to thousands of years ago.
While the initial instances of biometrics date back to the Babylonian empire, the first biometric identification system wasn’t developed until the 1800s. A Parisian, Alphonse Bertillon, created a method of classifying and comparing criminals based on their body measurements. While imperfect, Bertillon’s system was the catalyst of using physical characteristics as a means of authenticating identity.
In the 1880s, fingerprints started being used regularly as a way to identify criminals and to sign contracts. It became commonplace knowledge that people had unique fingerprints, which are symbolic of one’s identity. Though it is not 100% certain who first began using fingerprints for identification, we know that Edward Henry developed the Henry Classification System fingerprint standard.
That system was the first one used for identification and dependent upon the unique minutiae of fingerprints. Law enforcement quickly phased out Bertillon’s methods and began using the Henry Classification System as the standard for criminal identity authentication. And this, in turn, started 100 years’ worth of research into other unique biological factors that could be used as a method of identification.
Let’s Go Through the Timeline of Biometric History
The 1800s witnessed significant developments in biometrics, including the introduction and the fall of the Bertillon system, the implementation of Henry’s fingerprint Classification system, and the establishment of fingerprint databases.
Sir William Herschel is credited for the first systematic capture of finger and hand images that were taken for identity verification purposes. Herschel was working in India's Civil Service, and he recorded employees’ handprints on the back of their worker contracts — by doing so, he could tell who the real employees were on payday.
Bertillon developed anthropometries (or Bertillonage), which is a method used to identify people based on specific records of their body’s measurements, photographs of them, and their physical descriptions. Criminal offenders who are arrested multiple times would often provide different names to law enforcement authorities. Bertillon realized that, even though they may change their names, certain aspects of their appearance would remain the same. Police authorities used his system across the globe — however, Bertillonage quickly faded once it became clear that some criminals had the same body measurements.
Sir Francis Galton authored an in-depth study of fingerprints — in it, he suggested a classification system that used prints from all 10 fingers. The minutiae — or characteristics — that Galton used to identify people are still in use today.
Sir Edward Henry, who was the Bengal Police force’s General Inspector, collaborated with Sir Francis Galton to devise a method of classifying and storing fingerprint information so it could easily and efficiently be used.
Major breakthroughs in biometrics occurred in the 1900s, including the use of iris patterns and hand geometry for personal identification. The mid-to-late 1900s also saw the birth of the facial recognition movement.
The New York Civil Service Commission began fingerprinting their applicants in order to prevent test fraud. The New York state prison system ended up adopting this practice for criminal identification. In 1904, the St. Louis police department and the U.S. Penitentiary in Kansas both set up fingerprint bureaus.
An ophthalmologist, Frank Burch, first proposed the idea of using iris patterns as an identification method.
Gunnar Fant, a Swedish professor, released a model that explained the physiological components of the production of acoustic speech. He analyzed x-rays of people making certain phonic sounds and based his findings upon those. Fant’s model was used to gain a better understanding of the speech’s biological components, which is an integral concept of speaker recognition.
The FBI started pushing for the development of a system that would automate its existing fingerprint identification process. At the time, the manual process was overwhelming and required lots of man-hours. The FBI contracted the NIST to study the process — and the NIST listed two crucial challenges. The first was to scan fingerprint cards and identify minutiae, while the second was to compare a scanned fingerprint to lists of minutiae.
Three researchers, A.J. Goldstein, A.B. Lesk, and L.D. Harmon, automated facial recognition through the analysis of 21 specific and subject markers — for example, lip thickness and hair color. However, at the time, the locations and measurements of the markers were computed manually.
Also, in 1970, Dr. Joseph Perkell expanded upon the initial model of acoustic speech production. He used motion x-rays, including ones of the tongue and jaw, to provide a more in-depth understanding of speech’s biological components.
During this year, the first commercial systems for hand geometry recognition became available. Such systems had three primary purposes: time and attendance, personal identification, and physical access control.
The FBI provided funding for the production of minutia scanners and extracting technology — this directly led to the creation of a prototype reader. At that time, only a print’s minutiae were stored because digital storage had such a high cost.
Texas Instruments developed the first prototype speaker recognition system — which was tested out by the MITRE Corporation and the US Air Force.
The NIST Speech Group was developed in order to study and promote speech processing techniques. To this day, the Group continues to host yearly evaluations to continuously advance the speech recognition industry.
The concept of hand geometry identification was patented by David Sidlauskas. Also, in 1985, Joseph Rice was awarded a patent for subcutaneous vascular pattern recognition.
The Los Angeles County’s Sheriff Department (and, specifically, its Lakewood Division) started to use video images of suspects to search the database of digital mugshots. Furthermore, two researchers, Sirovich and Kirby, applied principle component analysis to facial recognition. By doing so, they were able to prove that under 100 values were needed to approximate a normalized facial image.
Turk and Pentland discovered that residual error could be used for facial detection in images while using eigenfaces techniques. This implied that automated facial recognition in real-time was possible. While this was constrained by environmental influences somewhat, the discovery still sparked lots of interest in the further development of the facial recognition industry.
The NSA formed the Biometric Consortium; government agencies, private industry members, and academicians were included and expanded efforts in the testing, interoperability, and standards development of biometric activities.
The FERET (Face Recognition Technology Evaluation) ran from ’93 to ’97 — it assessed face recognition system prototypes and sparked the transition of these systems to the commercial market.
A patent for iris recognition was awarded to Dr. John Daugman — his patented technologies were the precursor to most modern commercial iris recognition solutions.
1994 also saw the IAFIS — Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System — competition. Entered systems aimed to meet three key challenges: the acquisition of digital fingerprints, the extraction of local ridges’ characteristics, and pattern matching of those characteristics. Lockheed Martin ended up being selected to build an IAFIS for the FBI.
The first fingerprint system that also supported palm prints was built by Hungarian company ECOWARE Ltd. In 1994 — and their technology was bought by Lockheed Martin a few years later.
There was one more notable development in 1994: a biometric implementation, INSPASS, allowed travelers to skip immigration airlines at certain US airports. Eligible travelers had cards that contained their hand geometry data. However, this program was discontinued in 2004.
The Atlanta Olympic Games used hand geometry systems to secure access to the Olympic Village. Over 65,000 people were enrolled, and the system processed more than one million transactions across the span of four weeks.
Also, in 1996, the NSA provided funding for the National Institute of Standards and Technology to host yearly evaluations in order to advance the speaker recognition industry.
The NSA also sponsored the Human Authentication API — it was published as the very first standard for commercial, generic biometric interoperability, and it focused on allowing vendor independence and interchangeability. This was the foundation of the biometric standardization protocols to come.
The International Civil Aviation Organization launched a study on the compatibility of biometric technology with MRTD inspection processes. It aimed to determine whether those biometric solutions should be used as an international standard.
That same year, the FBI’s open-set fingerprint identification system was operational. Before the system’s standards were developed, a fingerprint gathered on one system was not able to be matched against another system’s fingerprints. However, this new system (IAFIS) addressed information exchange and communication issues.
So far, the 21st century has seen biometrics grow by leaps and bounds. Systems work quicker and more efficiently, social acceptance of facial recognition is increasing, and mobile biometric solutions have become common.
The first FRVT (Face Recognition Vendor Test) was held — it was the initial open, large-scale test of multiple commercial biometric systems.
The FBI and West Virginia University collaborated with professional associations to develop a Biometric Systems bachelor’s program. This was the very first-degree program of its kind — however, it was not accredited.
A facial recognition system was used in 2001’s Super Bowl, with the purpose of prohibiting certain people from entering the stadium. However, there were one dozen false positives and zero true positives.
The ISO established a subcommittee to facilitate the standardization of biometric solutions. The subcommittee creates standards that promote data exchange and interoperability across various systems.
Along those same lines, the M1 Technical Committee on Biometrics was established by the US Technical Advisory Group — it had the purpose of developing standards across accredited organizations that are members of the ANSI.
Lastly, in 2002, the FBI launched the Next Generation IAFIS initiative, which was tasked with developing requirements for an integrated national palm print service and for the later deployment of such a system.
The US Government’s National Science & Technology Council initiated a Subcommittee on Biometrics, which was responsible for coordinating the research, development, policy, outreach, and international collaboration of biometric systems.
The ICAO adopted an international blueprint for the integration of biometric data into passports — facial recognition was selected as the method of biometric identity confirmation.
Furthermore, an independent organization — the European Biometrics Forum — was formed and had a vision of establishing the US as the world leader in the biometric industry.
The United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indication Technology program (or US-VISIT) was formed as a security measure to confirm the identity of travels who need visas. Biometrics such as digital photos and inkless fingerprints were integrated.
Also, in 2024, the Department of Defense implemented ABIS — the Automated Biometric Identification System. This system was launched to identify and track people who were considered threats to national security. The systems had the ability to collect iris images, voice samples, DNA, and five mugshots from persons of interest.
President Bush announced Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, which required all federal government employees and contractors to have a personal identification card. These cards have two fingerprints contained within, stored as minutia templates.
One more note for 2004: California, Rhode Island, and Connecticut all established palm print databases that let law enforcement authorities submit unidentified prints and compare them to other databases of known offenders.
In Summer 2008, Google enabled voice search in BlackBerry Pearl’s mobile version of Google Maps. Blackberry and Nokia phone users could also use the Google Mobile app to complete voice searches. This capability was added to the iPhone in November 2008.
Another development in 2008 was that the DoD and the FBI began to develop next-gen databases that would contain not just fingerprints but also palm, face, and iris data.
In March of 2010, a beta version of Google Voice Search was integrated into YouTube — it provided automatic caption generation to support English-speaking, hearing-impaired users.
The U.S.national security apparatus utilized biometrics to identify a terrorist who had been present at the 9/11 planning location.
Siri was publicly launched in 2011, giving iPhone users the ability to control a digital personal assistant via voice commands.
Also, in 2011, the CIA used DNA and facial recognition technology to confirm Osama bin Liden’s remains — with 95% certainty.
Apple released Touch ID, which was available on the 5S, 6, and 6+ phones, as well as the iPad Air 2 and Mini 3.
Microsoft launched its competitor to Siri: Cortana. This is a personal productivity assistant that follows voice commands and uses machine learning.
2018 saw a huge breakthrough in commercial applications of biometrics when the first MasterCard Biometric Card was released. It combined chip technology with fingerprints to verify in-store purchases. There was also a car that had integrated face biometrics: Byton introduced an electric vehicle that unlocks that door and loads the driver’s profile as soon as they sit in front of the wheel. The vehicle also allows drivers to control several features via gestures and voice commands.
This brings us to the 2020s: what’s in store for biometric authentication? Biometric technology is already secure enough to support integration at a full-scale. Applications that use biometrics are set to charge ahead since their measured traits are almost impossible to counterfeit. Hardware scanners are at 99%+ effectiveness rates, and algorithms only continue to get more accurate.
Biometrics experts predict that more options will be introduced in the next few years — for instance, heart-rate and gait detection may become more commonplace. By 2030, we may be a completely passwordless society. Furthermore, the global biometric market revenue is projected to increase steadily between now and 2030. Biometrics has a rich history and a promising future — we’re excited to see how it develops.
Biometrics History FAQ
When were biometrics introduced?
Biometrics were introduced as early as the ancient Babylonian empire. However, the modern biometrics industry did not begin until the 1800s.
Who invented biometrics?
Alphonse Bertillon is considered to be the pioneer of modern biometrics, as he developed the Bertillon body measurement system.
What does biometrics mean?
Biometrics are a method of identity verification by measuring somebody’s physical characteristics.
What are some examples of biometrics?
Voice, face, fingerprint, and iris recognition are all prevalent examples of biometrics.