Our identity proves more than just who we are – it is also our key to obtain access to financial services, government benefit programs, healthcare, and other services. Access to these services are crucial for anyone but can be especially beneficial to low-income
individuals seeking assistance. However, these individuals (especially those in developing countries), often lack personal dependable ID infrastructure. This prevents them from accessing important day-to-day services that many of us take for granted, like
having a bank account. Realities like this are just one more brick in the wall that keeps low-income populations from upward mobility.
How can we combat this problem?
Biometrics are becoming a growing trend in developing countries to extend ID verification, as it is convenient, secure and only requires an individual’s characteristics to prove who they are – not endless paperwork or identity cards, which is a further challenge
for some regions with high illiteracy. Advances in biometric identification in recent years have allowed for the uptick in biometric use. Examples include Aadhaar UID in India, NADRA in Pakistan, Biometric voter registration in Tanzania and others in Nigeria,
Kenya, Bangladesh, Zambia
and more. For example,
during a disastrous period of flooding in 2010, the Pakistan government used its already established biometric citizen registry to confirm identities through fingerprint identification and disburse donations to more than two million affected families to
help them rebuild their homes and replace lost property.
There has been significant progress in biometric adoption, but it still has a long way to go. Today’s biometric approaches typically require widespread deploy of costly biometric readers, which can be challenging to deploy and maintain in low-resource environments.
Portable fingerprint scanners can be less cost effective than traditional means of verification (e.g. presenting a physical ID), especially if they are distributed at the scale required for use in national programs. In addition, fingerprint verification can
sometimes prove to be challenging if, for example, an individual is a field worker who has rough or work-worn hands.
But new solutions are emerging which are now not cost prohibitive: namely, smartphones, which contain all the sensors needed to capture biometric data, including cameras and fingerprint readers (that is, Touch ID technologies). Basic phones and even Android
smartphones have spread rapidly to many parts of the developing world, so they are already readily available. By using existing smartphone technology for biometric authentication, identification programs can be accessed via the mobile internet, downloaded
as an app, or integrated into existing apps.
Increasingly, contactless biometric methods, using just the smartphone’s camera to take a picture of your fingerprints, are quickly gaining traction – a boon for developing markets, as nearly all smartphones have a camera and a flash, which is all that is
needed to authenticate. Moreover, contactless biometric methods are significantly more reliable than other mobile-based solutions, as they can be used in any environmental condition. They can also work around issues like detecting fingerprints of individuals
who may have rough hands from working with their hands and detecting individuals of different races. This type of authentication is more reliable than other methods, like facial recognition, which can be easily spoofed.
In addition to capturing fingerprints, this next-generation biometric technology needs to ensure the utmost privacy and security for end users. Solutions should be built with the Biometric Open Protocol Standard in mind. This, in addition to Visual Cryptography,
will ensure the utmost security for users. Visual Cryptography is a form of encryption that uses a unique approach that breaks up the biometric image into two or more different pieces, with the pixels randomly distributed between the mobile phone and server.
Even if one of the systems is compromised, no useful information can be acquired.
There is so much opportunity for quick and impactful advancement here, so we’re throwing our hat into the ring, too. We were recently awarded a grant from the
Digital Financial Services Innovation Lab, supported by the
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop and field test biometric authentication technology on unmodified Android smartphones, improving the way populations in developing countries can access and enroll in
financial and government programs. We may have a bit to work on, but the industry as a whole is getting close to providing a low-cost, easily deployable identity management solution for low-income individuals all around the world. Soon, populations all over
the world will enjoy easier access to financial accounts, government benefits, and healthcare records, and – slowly – start to knock out the bricks from the opportunity divide.