The fingerprint scanner that looks inside your finger


What do diabetes and fingerprints have in common?

In truth, very little, but a fingerprint sensor from HID and Lumidigm was first developed to measure diabetics glucose level without them needing to prick a finger.

By happy accident, it was discovered that the technology could also get an accurate image of a fingerprint – and the Lumidigm V-Series Fingerprint sensors and modules were born.

Having heard this our curiosity was piqued, and so we made the arduous journey to Fourways, Johannesburg to meet up with HID Global Vice President, Greg Sarrail.

If you’re asking how a fingerprint sensor impacts your life this particular brand of sensor will be used in the SmartID cards Home Affairs has been issuing since 2013.

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Even more interesting is that the big name South African banks would be able to access the database of fingerprints for secure transactions, such as replacing an ATM PIN with a fingerprint.

This would make South Africa one of only 15 countries where the Department of Home Affairs allows a financial institution to access its secure database to verify an identity. “In this instance, South Africa is ahead of most parts of the world,” Sarrail explains.

Fake it ’til you make it

Now, we’ve seen two instances in recent weeks where fingerprints have been spoofed and this is why we’ve taken the time to check out the V-Series Fingerprint sensor.

We asked Sarrail about how secure this system is and how easily it could be spoofed. “When you scan a finger print it will give a score as to how close the fingerprint is to the fingerprint on record as well as a spoof score,” Sarrail explained.

The lower the spoof score number, the more likely it is that the fingerprint is attached to a real human being, a high score means its more likely to be a fake finger print or, dare we say, a severed finger.

Oddly, Sarrail has never been stopped by airport security asking why he has a tray marked "fake fingers" in his bag.

Oddly, Sarrail has never been stopped by airport security and asked why he has a tray marked “fake fingers” in his bag.

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The scanner also gives the fingerprint a quality score. This helps when you have a dirty finger or you’re wearing a latex glove. Sarrail goes onto tell us that this could be used to grant access to certain areas, such as an operating theatre in a hospital or a parts store in a service garage.

As for spoofing, criminals are going to have a hard time faking a fingerprint.

“We have a team that is devoted to breaking this scanner and getting it to detect a spoof fingerprint as a real fingerprint. They use different combinations of materials and techniques to try and get the scanner to think a fake fingerprint is real,” the VP told us.

“Once they find something they analyse and find the unique properties of that material and programme those parameters into the scanner, this can be done remotely so that you constantly have the most up-to-date system.”

This is all made possible by using multispectral imaging technology. The technology scans multiple levels of your finger rather than simply taking a picture of the fingerprint. This allows the sensor to build a template of your fingerprint’s various hills and valleys, also known as minutiae.

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The scanner takes 12 scans at varying levels within your finger using light.

The scanner takes 12 scans at varying levels within your finger using light.

Sarrail goes on to explain that even if a malicious individual were to crack the database of fingerprints they would have nothing but a string of numbers which map out the minutiae of a fingerprint. As we’ve explained even if this was used to spoof a fingerprint the sensor would more than likely identify it.

But what if your fingerprints are smoothed out or just so faint they can’t be seen?

To answer this Sarrail shared a rather heart-warming story with us. “At a trade show recently a woman approached us a while ago saying she had never seen her fingerprints. She explained that traditional scans and ink-based techniques just resulted in smooth fingerprints. Once she used our scanner and saw her fingerprint for the first time in her life, she broke down in tears.”

So is it 100% secure?

That is a tricky question because right now; yes it is. Unfortunately, we know all to well that cyber criminals evolve quickly and are getting more advanced in how they circumvent security measures.

However, it should give you some peace of mind to know that Lumidigm and HID are constantly working to keep your information secure.

We quite like the idea of being able to use a fingerprint to withdraw money at an ATM and while that is only just starting to be rolled out around South Africa, it is happening.

After speaking to Sarrail yesterday we do find some comfort in knowing that criminals are going to have to try extremely hard to ruin your day rather than just being able to guess four numbers to empty your bank account.

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