Coronavirus and the role of biometrics

Identity verification becomes a touchy subject during a pandemic.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) is changing the face of businesses worldwide. The pandemic and associated quarantine measures, hitherto unprecedented, have transformed the global economy and affected almost every industry in just a few weeks.

With many organisations following government advice, implementing home working and social distancing, the problem of remote identity verification has become more acute. It is particularly relevant to essential staff who need to attend a place of work and have their presence logged and/or authenticated.

Biometrics is a technology that is used in its various forms for identity verification, access control, workforce management, time and attendance, and many other authentication applications. However, in relation to mitigating the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on life at work, some biometric technologies would seem to be more practical than others.

Fingerprint biometrics poses an obvious risk because it involves contact. Time clocks using fingerprints have become increasingly popular among many organisations, as they heighten security and add convenience. However, if person after person has to touch the sensor pad on the scanner, that can mean thousands of people in a day.

According to the National Institutes of Health Laboratory of Virology in Hamilton, Montana, and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, whose joint experiments are described here, the fomite transmission of the coronavirus (HCoV-19) is plausible. The team found that a viable virus could be detected up to 72 hours, post application, on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces, albeit by then the virus titre (viral load) was greatly reduced.

According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s possible for a person to get HCoV-19 by touching a contaminated surface and then touching their own face. Considering the large number of people who have to touch biometric time clocks, day in and day out, including vulnerable workers in hospitals and health facilities, the risk would appear to be considerable. The same applies to other biometric technologies based on proximity or involving touching a device shared by others, such as iris and retina scanners.

It’s a risk that has resulted in many biometric time and attendance systems having been suspended in an attempt to slow down the spread of the virus. At the same time, governments and organisations have been demanding contactless payments, and even increasing the limits for such payments, to minimise risk to employees and customers alike.

The landscape has changed. Many businesses and consumers will need personal identity management solutions and cyber-security measures across a range of online and mobile applications, including distribution and delivery, at this time of greater risk from infection. Reverting to on-site registration and signing in is one answer, but that doesn’t solve the problem biometric systems were introduced to deal with in the first place.

Voice biometrics is the solution

Voice biometrics is a technology that can be applied to many scenarios, including time and attendance applications. It offers the advantage of a safer, sanitary, contactless alternative to fingerprint scanners and similar biometric technology devices. As it can be used remotely over the telephone, voice biometrics has the distinct advantage that contact with the device e.g., someone’s smartphone, is limited to the individual user. Often, the best solutions emerge in times of crisis. Voice biometrics could be described as an emerging technology. Perhaps now is the time for it to become mainstream.

If you are thinking of introducing voice biometrics for any form of identity verification in your business, and would like to discuss your requirements, contact one of our consultants today. If you are interested in using voice biometrics for workforce management e.g., for time and attendance applications, see our case study here.

In more immediate terms, you can help stop the spread of HCoV-19 by periodically wiping down workstations and devices, frequently washing your hands, sanitising when soap is not available, and saving the handshakes for later.

Stay safe!