My Thumb is My Passport: Using Biometrics

How fingerprint scanners work

A fingerprint scanner can store an image of your fingerprint and match the basic patterns that make up a fingerprint (arch, loop and whorl), but storing the image could be a security risk, and the 500 ppi most sensors use results in large image files. Instead, most systems store a mathematical representation of the characteristics in the fingerprint, called minutiae, based on where the ridges in the fingerprint start and stop, split or join together.

Storing the details of a fingerprint in the system is known as registering or enrolling. You scan the same finger three or four times (or more if you’re not getting a good scan), so that the software can calculate minutiae for enough areas of your finger to be sure of recognizing it. Start by pressing the first joint of your finger or thumb against the scanner, press firmly but not too hard, keep your finger straight and move it smoothly. If you share your PC, everyone can scan their own fingerprints for access.

fingerprint scanner

Scan several fingers in case you cut yourself.

As soon as your finger is enrolled, you can use it to log on to Windows, or to unlock your screensaver when you come back to your PC. With some software, you need to put in the details of the Web sites you use, but most tools will ask you whenever you type in a username and password whether you want to store them and log into the site automatically in the future. You can also log in to password-protected applications. Eikon’s Digital Privacy Manager lets you assign shortcuts for different applications to your fingers, so you can swipe once to log in and again to open a program.

With a built-in fingerprint reader, think about where it’s placed before you decide which fingers to scan (assuming you’re not doing all ten of them). If it’s below the trackpad, you can move either thumb over it comfortably, but if it’s at the base of the screen it will probably be easier to reach with one hand than the other. If the reader is on the side of the screen, you’ll get better results if you move your finger or thumb gently and stabilize the screen with your other hand-if the screen moves, your fingerprint may not be recognized.

You’ll also need to wipe the sensor clean from time to time (or press on a piece of adhesive tape then peel it off). It’s more obvious on a scanner that you press your finger onto-like the scanners you use at the airport when you come back from a foreign country-where you can sometimes see latent fingerprints made by the oil that comes out of your skin. Even on a scanner that you swipe your finger over, though, the oil can make it harder to get your fingerprint recognized.

This is more of a problem for optical fingerprint scanners like the Microsoft Fingerprint Reader; they have a light source and the same kind of sensor as a digital camera, so the surface has to be clean (and so does your finger). Other systems, including sensors made by UPEK, are like a touchscreen or a trackpad. While the outer layer of your skin, the epidermis, is non-conductive because the skin cells are dead, the layer beneath - called the dermis - is made up of living cells, and these do conduct electrical charges. When you put your finger onto the sensor, it can measure the difference in charge between the ridges of your fingerprint (which are all skin) and the valleys between the ridges (where there is some skin and some air).

Active capacitance sensors apply a tiny voltage to your skin before taking these measurements; they’re often used in touch scanners rather than swipe scanners, and they’re more expensive. That’s why the Microsoft Fingerprint Reader is less than $40, while the Silex Combo Mini Fingerprint Reader is $150. There isn’t room on a notebook for a touch scanner, and a swipe scanner can also be used for scrolling through Web pages and documents if the driver supports this; it works well on Motion Computing tablet PCs. When you swipe your finger, you’re also cleaning the sensor each time. Many notebook manufacturers use AuthenTec’s swipe fingerprint sensors, which send an RF current through the skin to directly read the ridge and valley pattern in the dermis.

fingerprint sensor tablet

A fingerprint sensor is particularly useful on a tablet PC, especially if you can also use it to scroll through pages.

If the fingerprint reader doesn’t recognize you when it should (false rejection) it’s irritating, but you can scan your finger again or use your password. If it recognizes the wrong person or a fake fingerprint (false acceptance) that’s a much bigger problem. Active fingerprint sensors offer better security than optical sensors like the Microsoft model, because they should be reading the fingerprint pattern in your dermis, so the contours on a fake fingerprint made just from a fingerprint you’ve left on a smooth surface wouldn’t trick them (and the finger of a dead person wouldn’t be recognized either).

A fake finger made out of dental mould or Play-Doh will fool many sensors, but it needs to be made from a mould of your finger. Either procedure takes time and know-how. Anyone with the time and access to make a fake fingerprint can just as easily take your hard drive out and read it in another computer anyway. If you’re worried about protecting your information if your PC is stolen, you need to add extra security by using whole-disk encryption software like PGP or BitLocker that makes the drive unreadable in another PC. To be really safe, don’t register your most confidential passwords-like the login for your online banking-with the fingerprint software.

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  • Anonymous
    i have an MS fingerprint scanner, when might the drivers come out for windows vista x64???
  • Lt Smash
    That last paragraph about scar messing up your biometric reading...does this mean that I can't use biometrics since I'm a diabetic? I prick my fingers 10-15 times a day so I've got constant scar tissue forming and healing...that would suck if I couldn't, cause I've always dreamed of fingerprint door locks.
  • Anonymous
    A word of caution for fingerprint readers. Well not so much the readers but the act of using them for security. The US Gov't can't force you to give up your password because it's 'something you know'. But they can make you give up your fingerprints because it's 'something you are'. They can legally compel you to open your computer since it's just your fingerprint as the password. If you have a typed password, they can't.
  • Anonymous
    Beware, this is the first few steps before the "mark of the beast". No I'm not religious, it's just kind of freakish to see the book of "Revelations" happen right before our eyes since y2k...
  • Anonymous
    Well, these things don't work worth a squat, these finger print readers do not work for me. The technology needs to be further developed, before it can be wide spread.
  • Anonymous
    BewareOfDolphy- I agree, There's no way anyone should agree with this especially seeing as how the pentagon went on record as saying they want every americans thumb print and eye identification.

    I'm not even a religious person but I can see this "can't buy or sell with out the mark" thing coming.
  • ModdoG
    when u use the keyboard ,plug it out and swap with another one .
    and your in the pc,LOL
  • Anonymous
    Not a too good way for security, while we leave almost our finger print everywhere...
  • Anonymous
    They need to fast track the fingerprint readers and make them part of every day life. Only those with criminal tendencies will have an issue with it. As I live in the country with the highest crime rate I am willing to give up freedom for a safer environment and loger life.
  • Anonymous
    I don't see the security in fingerprint readers. It's just as easy to bypass them. If anything it offers password text security without having to remember anything. As government databases become more widespread with the use of fingerprinting, why would you want your own personal information stored with the same "key" (fingerprint) that the government has on file? Sounds ridiculous.
  • Anonymous
    i agree with PixelPusher220, in the future when fingerprint is used as password to almost everything, e-mail or banking, etc. i think there'll be a lot of folks loosing their thumbs because some crooks cut 'em!
  • Anonymous
    they are amazing. I have one for my of
  • Anonymous
    Its ok. Quality is not great on those cheap ones. Http://
  • Anonymous
    The book of revelations, is written and followed by the illumanati and who sell the mark of the beast to the brainwashed public.....