How to deliver inclusion in the public sector through biometric technology

Sabrina Gross, regional director of strategic partners at Veridas, discusses the growing importance of biometric verification, including the benefits, challenges, and the importance of keeping processes accessible for everyone.

Posted 25 September 2023 by Christine Horton

How many times have we all tried to access a service, whether it be our bank account or health service, and to do so we’ve been forced to enrol in an authentication process where we need to provide a picture?

For many people, a picture can be required immediately – and may result in them walking away from the process or transaction they were seeking to make. There are many reasons why people don’t want to register their face with external services, and it may be easy to see why the public is averting widespread biometric adoption. However, there are huge benefits to using biometrics and it is the future of authentication.

Why are biometrics so important today?

Biometric technology offers a significant advancement in identity verification. Standard methods like passwords and memorable questions can be very tedious for users, and worse, are no longer effective against cybercriminals. Passwords can be stolen through phishing and data breaches, and knowledge-based authentication questions can be overcome with social engineering.

However, a physical factor such as your voice or face is something that belongs only to you, and it’s far harder for a cybercriminal to exploit it. This means biometrics has huge potential for making our daily lives more secure, whilst also making our daily lives more convenient. 

As such, biometrics are becoming more prominent in public sector strategies, allowing for easy access to central and local services. This will become more important as the UK Government continues to progress with its digital identity strategy.

What biometric method is the most useful?

The best biometric method depends on the circumstances.Voice biometrics is exceptionally reliable in ensuring seamless, secure, and barrier-free access to essential services without requiring any specialised equipment, just a landline will do.

In case facial recognition cannot be used due to cultural or religious reasons or if people simply may not feel comfortable using it, voice should be the leading alternative. Another advantage for voice recognition is that it can be a passive process and can be completed without any burden on the user, creating a more seamless experience.

If a person is in a very loud environment then face biometric might be a more appropriate solution as it will require a smartphone or a camera enabled device and WI-FI which most of us have with us at all times. Fingerprint biometrics might not be a good solution for all as it might require specialised equipment or not be suitable for health and safety reasons. It’s important that organisations make sure they have options which are appropriate for a variety of different circumstances.

So, is it important to have a choice?

Definitely. Whilst voice is often a good choice, it isn’t about picking one over the other, but integrating various biometric methods together.

Inclusivity is especially critical for the public sector since it serves a diverse populace with unique needs and preferences, and many people rely on these services for their wellbeing. So there needs to be a variety of verification methods, ensuring that every citizen, whether they’re in urban London or rural Scotland, can access services seamlessly. Multiple channels ensure that no one is left behind, aligning with the UK government’s vision of an inclusive digital future.

What criteria should public sector bodies prioritise when selecting biometric providers?

The public sector’s unique challenges necessitate a careful selection of biometric providers. Firstly, providers should offer diverse biometric authentication methods to cater to the varied needs of the UK’s diverse population. Having a single provider that can handle multiple types of verification will make it easier to create a unified approach.

User experience should also be a priority – ideally everyone from tech-savvy millennials to senior citizens should be able to access services without hurdles.

It’s also valuable to look for providers that have had their capabilities independently assessed and verified by external bodies. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has undertaken evaluation of various types of biometrics, whilst the National Security Scheme (ENS) undertakes assessments in Spain.  

What about cyber threats like deepfakes?

Every time a new security measure is introduced, cybercriminals will quickly work to find a way around it, and the same is true for biometrics. Deepfakes that are almost indistinguishable from real faces and voices are one of the most high-profile threats facing biometric verification.

It is essential to collaborate with providers that are at the forefront of combating emerging threats, constantly updating their algorithms and systems. Regular audits, certifications, and a multi-layered security approach are essential to ensure that the trust citizens place in public sector digital services is never compromised.

What else is important for the successful adoption of biometrics?

Introducing biometrics in public services can be as much about public perception as it is the technology behind the process. There has been a great deal of scepticism about such schemes in the past, with concerns about personal data being used for surveillance. There needs to be a strong policy of transparency and openness about how data is collected, handled and used to counter these concerns.

The focus should also be on the direct benefits to citizens. Security is a somewhat nebulous idea for most people, so it’s better to concentrate on tangible advantages such as quicker service access and more flexibility.