know-your-customerBiometrics have been primarily the business of governments for many years, which—for applications like law enforcement, defense, and border control—applied biometric search to “identify” people, essentially verifying their claimed identity.

Today, biometric sensors are ubiquitous, and millions of people are using biometrics many times each day for authentication.  It’s now hard to remember a time when the association of biometrics with criminality was reflexive; a notion that collection of my fingerprints—let alone a mugshot— represents accusation and inherent mistrust.  This is a powerful paradigm shift for the industry not only in terms of market potential but for the change in how consumers view biometrics.  The mugshot has become a selfie. Today we make use of our fingerprints and barely notice we are doing it. And the association is not with crime, but of high technology, convenience, and futurism.

What’s next? The biometric technology used by governments for searching criminal databases and watch lists can also be quite useful for commercial enterprises trying to ferret out fraudsters trying to open new accounts for nefarious purposes. Before consumers’ use of biometrics for authentication became just another reflex, subjecting prospective customers to a biometric search just wasn’t going to go over very well.

But again, this has changed. Today, consumers have a more sophisticated understanding of the meaning of identity in a digital world. Again, we already forget a simpler time when our identity was a drivers’ license, not a username or social media profile. It wasn’t that long ago that my social security number was printed on my drivers’ license. No one gave it a second thought back then, but we all know better today that the rules are different in a digital world.

Anyone that has been to an airport in the last ten years is well aware that many of today’s biggest threats aren’t nation states, but people among us, blending in. Travel prescreening services like Global Entry and TSA Pre are desirable to travelers because they give us the opportunity to assert our good standing and use it like currency to get on shorter lines.

We better understand, too, the hazards that lurk in the digital realm, where predators pretending to be someone else lurk in wait for an unsuspecting victim to share too much of their own information. We understand how powerful our digital identity can be, and what can happen if we don’t protect it.
So now, when a bank asks us to submit to a biometric identity check, we don’t flinch. We know that we’re a beneficiary of identity verification. When my bank knows who I am, they can know who is not me, and they can help ensure that the lurkers can’t pretend to be me and steal my assets. We call it “Know Your Customer” or KYC, and customers get it. We’ve entered a new era where banks don’t conduct all our business at the neighborhood branch anymore, and so KYC is more important than ever.

This is good news for banks and also other perennial victims of fraud: healthcare providers, retailers, and certainly government benefits administrators. By knowing with confidence that a customer is definitely NOT on a list of known fraudsters, we can treat them a little better; give them better services, better prices…like an invitation to the TSA Pre line. These are the customers they want, and we as customers are happy to oblige, so long as we’re getting something in return.

So biometrics are growing up with our perception of them. We associate them with a clean record, not a criminal one; a pretty dramatic change of view. This is why we can expect to see biometrics being used more often not just authentication but for search and identity proofing in commercial applications.