Key Findings From Crossmatch’s “Behind the Biometrics Boom” Parts 1-4

biometrics history crossmatch parts 1 through 4

Biometric authentication solution provider Crossmatch is currently undertaking an ambitious project: a multimedia exploration of the history of biometrics entitled “Behind the Biometrics Boom: The Secret History of Identity.” At time of writing, only parts 1 through 4 have been released. The project is set to conclude with an analysis of the present day state of biometrics in Part 5 and predictions on the future of the technology in part 6.

We read through the parts Crossmatch already released. Here are the key findings we discovered:

Biometrics Have Existed Long Before Modern Science

Even before the concept of biometrics became common parlance, ancient civilizations were using fingerprints as a means of identification. In fact, fingerprint identification in one form or another might be as old as civilization itself, although most ancient societies weren’t fully aware of the individuality of fingerprints.

Ancient Mesopotamian empires used fingerprints as identifiers on clay seals dating back to 2600 to 2350 BCE, with fingerprints being used in place of signatures on Babylonian contracts from 1900 BCE.  

According to Crossmatch, Ancient China appears to have been the most fervent adopters of early fingerprint identification nearly 2,000 years before modern science. From around 206 BCE to 589 CE, the Chinese bureaucracy collected and cataloged fingerprints from their citizens to be used as authentication for marriage contracts, divorce papers, and army records. Some writings even suggest that they used fingerprints in criminal investigations.

For comparison’s sake, Sir William James Herschel, a British colonial officer, is commonly considered the first European to use fingerprints in an administrative context. He first began doing so in 1858, and didn’t write about it formally until 1916.    

Fingerprint Authentication Had Many Hands In Its Development

Crossmatch goes into detail on just how many scientists, officials, and innovators elboarted on the ideas of their predecessors and built fingerprint authentication up into the institution it is today. Here’s a few of names and dates that stuck out most to us:

  • 1686-—Marcello Malpighi, considered the father of fingerprint identification writes his seminal treatise.
  • 1788—Johann Christophe Andreas Mayer makes the first European argument for the individuality of fingerprints.
  • 1823—Johannes Purkinje makes the first attempt to codify fingerprint patterns and discovers Purkinje images, a vital component of modern iris and retinal scans.
  • 1883—Mark Twain provides the first literary usage of the fingerprint as a biometric identifier in crime fiction, far preceding actual police usage.
  • 1891—Buenos Aires police officer Juan Vucetich is the first law enforcement official to make a positive criminal identification using fingerprints.

The War on Terror Pushed Biometrics into Security

Since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the primary use of biometric authentication was criminal investigation, even as the methods of collection and comparison improved and the databases became more comprehensive.

In their project, Crossmatch claims that the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 pushed the application of biometrics into the security world; citizens and officials demanded more reliable authentication methods than easily falsifiable documents. Indeed, U.S. government agencies began supporting innovations in biometrics as a security identifier as early as 2003. They began collecting biometric data in earnest in 2004.

So far from being a a groundbreaking or frightening new technology, biometrics are in fact a long recognized and reliable means of authentication…possibly one that could help keep your databases secure far into the future.

You can see the full project here.

Ben Canner

Ben Canner is an enterprise technology writer and analyst covering Identity Management, SIEM, Endpoint Protection, and Cybersecurity writ large. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English from Clark University in Worcester, MA. He previously worked as a corporate blogger and ghost writer. You can reach him via Twitter and LinkedIn.
Ben Canner