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Technology December 2013

Been Filing off Your Fingerprints Lately?

By Teresa Ambord

The older you get, the less reliable fingerprint identification becomes. The skin on our fingers which was once soft and pliable grows a little harder, making it impossible to for some people to use a fingerprint scan. Imagine if your only way to use an ATM was by providing a fingerprint.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes or even a devotee of crime shows to know fingerprints are a key tool used to identify an individual. This is true whether you’re trying to solve a case or prove your innocence. It’s easy to assume fingerprints are a surefire method of identification, but oddly enough, not everyone has fingerprints.

As the need for security grows, some technology experts want to incorporate the use of fingerprints and other biological markers –  like iris or facial scans – to allow entry into certain buildings, to access accounts, like at an ATM, or to use a computer or certain phones or other equipment. In some ways, this sounds good. Because remembering passwords can be a problem, especially when technology experts say they should be long and complex. Some recommend passwords that include at least 19 characters.

Or… just use a fingerprint.

Apple’s new iPhone added the bonus of fingerprint recognition, which some people love. It’s quick and easy –  if it works. Unfortunately, just one day after it was released, hackers announced to the world they had cracked the code. So much for security!

Then there is the other problem… the fact that some people have disappearing fingerprints.


Age and Occupation

One thing you may not know is, the older you get, the less reliable fingerprint identification becomes. The skin on our fingers which was once soft and pliable grows a little harder, making it impossible for some people to use a fingerprint scan. Imagine if your only way to use an ATM was by providing a fingerprint. You visit an ATM on a Sunday when the bank is closed, present your fingerprint to gain access to your account, and instead of getting your money, the message pops up, ACCESS DENIED.

Or you try to use your new, expensive phone, only to be told it doesn’t recognize you.

The Scientific American website say, “… the elasticity of skin decreases with age, so a lot of senior citizens have prints that are difficult to capture. The ridges get thicker; the height between the top of the ridge and the bottom of the furrow gets narrow, so there’s less prominence. So if there’s any pressure at all [on the scanner], the print just tends to smear.”

According to Ed Richards, a law professor and national security expert at Louisiana State University says this is often an occupational hazard, and not just among older people. Hairdressers, whose hands are often in chemicals, or people who wear latex gloves in their work may face this problem. Latex gloves have a way of peeling the skin. “There are a lot of people,” he said, “who don’t have readable fingerprints..”

Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at the University of Cambridge Computer laboratory in England, agrees. “People like bricklayers and tillers whose fingers have been worn flat. Old people tend to have less distinct fingerprints than young people for similar reasons.”

I’ll add another slick-finger profession to the list. My sister, who is a mere 51 years old, drives a huge school bus for a living. As someone who is responsible for the lives of children, she has to be fingerprinted regularly in the course of her job. Yet, she has been embarrassed more than once when trying to have a fingerprint scan at the local Sheriff’s office. On one occasion when she had to be scanned over and over, with no luck, she joked that she really shouldn’t “file off her prints.”

The officer performing the scan was not at all amused. Evidently he thought she might be a crazed school bus thief hoping to abscond with a 50-foot bright yellow bus and hide it… where? In her garage? Eventually it was concluded that the giant steering wheel on her bus must have worn down her prints.


Faster, Flashier, Cooler, Smaller

In spite of the shortcomings of fingerprint recognition, guys who sit in cubicles striving to make the latest technology faster and flashier, cooler and of course, smaller are not really thinking of us seasoned citizens at all. Sure the techies might bow to those of us with vision limitations a little, by making some models with bigger number pads and displays. And, by the way, thanks for that. Even this side of 60 I’ve noticed some type is nearly impossible to read.

So now, in the interest of coolness and speed, developers –  such as the makers of the Apple iPhone – are incorporating biometric markers, like fingerprint scanners. I mean, why waste three or four seconds entering a passcode when you can present a fat, fleshy thumbprint and get right into your phone or account. That is, unless like one of the scenarios above, your phone accuses you of being an impostor. Then you could be up a creek without a connection.

Even if your prints are fine, suppose you have your phone set up to identify you by your right thumb. You could lose your thumb in an accident, or injure it and require a bandage or splint. Then what? Some proponents of the Apple iPhone with fingerprint scanner say the sensor in the iPhone is subdermal, so the condition of the finger skin is irrelevant. Others insist this is a factor that needs to be solved.

One tech expert speculated phone makers like Apple would begin to add an opt-out, where the user can revert to a password if necessary. Then again, in spite of all the hype, this techie says, there doesn’t really seem to be a big demand for biometric access to devices like phones. So… maybe this will go the way of the dinosaur eventually and those of us with disappearing fingerprints can relax.


Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

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