A Brief Insight into Biometrics’ History

The term “Biometrics” is derived from the Greek words “bio” (life) and “metrics” (to measure). Automated Biometric systems have only become available over the last few decades, due to significant advances in the field of computer processing. Many of these new automated techniques, however, are based on ideas that were originally conceived hundreds, even thousands of years ago.

One of the oldest and most basic examples of a characteristic that is used for recognition by humans is the face. Since the beginning of civilization, humans have used faces to identify known (familiar) and unknown (unfamiliar) individuals. The concept of human-to-human recognition is also seen in behavioral-predominant biometrics such as speaker and gait recognition.

Other characteristics have also been used throughout the history of civilization as a more formal means of recognition. Some examples are:
  • In a cave estimated to be at least 31,000 years old, the walls are adorned with paintings which are surrounded by numerous handprints that are felt to “have acted as an unforgettable signature” of its originator.
  • There is also evidence that fingerprints were used as a person’s mark as early as 500 B.C. The business transactions in Babylon were recorded in clay tablets that include fingerprints.
  • Joao de Barros, a Spanish explorer and writer, wrote that early Chinese merchants used fingerprints to settle business transactions. Chinese parents also used fingerprints and footprints to differentiate children from one another.
  • In early Egyptian history, traders were identified by their physical descriptors to differentiate between trusted traders of known reputation and previous successful transactions, and those new to the market.
By the mid-1800s, with the rapid growth of cities due to the industrial revolution and more productive farming, there was a formally recognized need to identify people. Merchants and authorities were faced with increasingly larger and more mobile populations and could no longer rely solely on their own experiences and local knowledge. Influenced by the writings of Jeremy Bentham and other Utilitarian thinkers, the courts of this period began to codify concepts of justice that endure with us to this day.

Most notably, justice systems sought to treat first time offenders more leniently and repeat offenders more harshly. This created a need for a formal system that recorded offenses along with measured identity traits of the offender. The first of two approaches was the Bertillon system of measuring various body dimensions, which originated in France. These measurements were written on cards that could be sorted by height, arm length or any other parameter. This field was called anthropometries.

The other approach was the formal use of fingerprints by police departments. This process emerged in South America, Asia, and Europe. By the late 1800s a method was developed to index fingerprints that provided the ability to retrieve records as Bertillon’s method did but that was based on a more individualized metric- fingerprint patterns and ridges. The first such robust system for indexing fingerprints was developed in India by Azizul Haque for Edward Henry, Inspector General of Police, Bengal, India. This system, called the Henry System, and variations on it are still in use for classifying fingerprints.

True biometric systems began to emerge in the latter half of the twentieth century, coinciding with the emergence of computer systems. The nascent field experienced an explosion of activity in the 1990s and began to surface in everyday applications in the early 2000s.

The advent of the 21st century saw emerge of advance and faster computer processing and new Hi-Tech automated techniques. Thus biometric functions like Face Recognition and Iris Recognition techniques came into regular practice. But whatsoever Fingerprint still remains the most popular and widely used biometric function till date.

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