Cell phones that can identify you by how you walk. Fingerprint scanners that work from 25 feet away. Radars that pick up your heartbeat from behind concrete walls. Algorithms that can tell identical twins apart. Eyebrows and earlobes that give you away. A new generation of technologies is emerging that can identify you by your physiology. And unlike the old crop of biometric systems, you don’t need to be right up close to the scanner in order to be identified. If they work as advertised, they may be able to identify you without you ever knowing you’ve been spotted.
Biometrics had a boom after 9/11. Gobs of government money poured into face and iris recognition systems; the Pentagon alone spent nearly $3 billion in five years, and the Defense Department was only one of many federal agencies funneling cash in the technologies. Civil libertarians feared the worst as face-spotters were turned on crowds of citizens in the hopes of catching a single crook.
But while the technologies proved helpful in verifying identities at entry points from Iraq to international airports, the hype — or panic — surrounding biometrics never quite panned out. Even after all that investment, scanners still aren’t particularly good at finding a particular face in the crowd, for example; variable lighting conditions and angles (not to mention hats) continue to confound the systems.
Eventually, the biometrics market — and the government enthusiasm for it — cooled off. The technological development has not. Corporate and academic labs are continuing to find new ways to ID people with more accuracy, and from further away.