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Why facial recognition is superior to fingerprint alternatives

Biometrics is the technical analysis of a person’s unique physical features.

September 5, 2018  By  Colin Bodbyl

The longest standing use of biometrics in the security industry is fingerprint recognition. This technology is commonly used as a form of access control to validate users without forcing them to carry an RFID badge or memorize a PIN number. While successful by many measures, biometric technology has never gained the kind of traction one would expect from such a futuristic technology. Recently, a different biometrics technology has been getting a lot of attention as facial recognition promises to overcome the challenges inherent to  fingerprint recognition. Like fingerprint recognition, facial recognition is marketed as a credential validation tool for access control. It promises to overcome many of the challenges faced by fingerprint recognition.

The most common complaint about fingerprint recognition is hygiene. Studies have shown that touching a fingerprint reader is no less hygienic than touching a door knob. Somehow that has not been enough to change people’s minds about the cleanliness of these readers. Facial recognition easily solves this problem as no contact is required for it to operate; a person simply looks into a camera and the door unlocks, removing hygiene concerns completely.

Another challenge with fingerprint readers is their application in cold climates. Many parts of the world face sub-zero temperatures. In these cases users may be wearing gloves or just have their hands buried in their pockets in places where every second exposed to the cold is unpleasant. In these applications, it doesn’t take long for users to resent the technology that forces them to chill their hand daily while waiting for the reader to analyze their  fingerprint. Again, facial recognition does not have this issue.

User enrollment is another big challenge. Unlike RFID cards or even physical keys, where they can simply be handed to users, fingerprint recognition requires every user to enroll their finger in the system by scanning it several times while an administrator logs it in the software. Facial recognition is less invasive where in many cases only an image of the person is needed to enroll them.


The final issue with fingerprint recognition is false negatives. A false negative is when a user who is in the system is rejected by the reader because of a misread. Manufacturers will boast a 99 per cent or higher accuracy rate but that still means users are rejected several times per year. This may not sound like a huge issue, but the reality is that users (especially those expecting perfect performance) can quickly become frustrated by the false negatives. Facial recognition doesn’t solve this problem either. Similar to fingerprints, faces can present differently under different conditions, which can generate a false negative.

Facial recognition is without question superior to fingerprint recognition, but it cannot overcome every challenge related to biometric technology. That being said, even though facial recognition may have a limited future in access control, it has many other applications outside of access control where false negatives are not an issue. In particular, the technology is good in active monitoring situations where a guard or monitoring centre only wants to be alerted of unknown visitors and the occasional false negative is expected. Similarly, the technology will be extremely effective as a data collection tool to recognize frequent visitors or loyal customers. It is these types of applications that will make facial recognition far more successful than fingerprint recognition.

Biometrics is an exciting technology that has existed for many years now. Limitations around cost and functionality have prevented wide spread adoption. Fingerprint recognition has led the way in mainstream applications but inherent limitations prevent it from growing faster. Facial recognition promises to overcome many of these hurdles and while it is not perfect, it has many applications beyond access control that will bolster its growth and ultimately see it surpass the popularity of biometrics products of the past.

Colin Bodbyl is the chief technology officer for UCIT Online (www.ucitonline.com).

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2018 issue of SP&T News.

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