How Vein Scans Could Be More Secure Than Face ID

Vein prints could be the new fingerprints

Key Takeaways

  • Scientists have used AI to confirm people’s identities by scanning the veins on the back of their hands.
  • The vein-scanning technique could be useful for wearable technology like smartwatches, experts say.
  • Finding new ways to identify users is essential as privacy and security threats grow.
Hand communicating with cell phone while held above it palm down
Donald Iain Smith / Getty Images

A new technology that identifies people using veins on the back of their hands could be useful for wearables like smartwatches, experts say.

Researchers using artificial intelligence have discovered a way to identify people by scanning the veins on the back of their hands. The new technology could be a more secure way of identifying people than fingerprints or facial recognition. Vein prints might even be an excellent addition to wearables. 

"Most wearables today already have LEDs and light sensors to measure heart rate, blood oxygen levels, and even blood pressure," Scott Hanson, founder and chief technology officer of technology company Ambiq, said in an email interview. "If this same technology were repurposed for vein pattern matching, then a wearable could identify a user's identity and be used as part of two-factor authentication."

Pay for Coffee With a Vein Print

For example, Hanson said, using a credit card number at a website could require authentication of the user's identity via a wearable reading a vein pattern. The wearable could be used for NFC-based payment at a brick-and-mortar coffee shop after a user's identity is confirmed. 

In the study conducted by scientists at Australia's University of New South Wales, researchers took 17,500 pictures from 35 people who made a fist. The researchers used AI to find identifying features in these patterns with more than 99% accuracy. 

Finding new ways to identify users is vital as privacy and security threats grow, the researchers said in the paper. Traditional biometric information like fingerprints isn’t always secure. 

"Passwords are, plain and simple, a pain."

"Fingerprints can easily be collected from the surfaces that a victim may have touched and used to circumvent the fingerprint‐based authentication," the researchers wrote in their paper. "Similarly, there have been instances where a victim's photograph obtained from a simple web search has been used to bypass the face recognition system."

Even your eyes aren’t safe, according to the authors, who explained that "iris scans can be subverted using the victim's image superimposed with a contact lens."

No More Passwords

Biometric security measures like those that identify veins could be a boon for users, Todd​ Gifford, chief technology officer of the consulting firm Optimising IT, said in an email interview. 

"Passwords are, plain and simple, a pain," he said. "They are something you need to remember; you need to change, and ultimately are something hackers are keen to get their hands on. It's easy to trick users into handing over a password with a phishing email and fake sign-in page. They can be reverse-engineered quickly and with ease." 

Man watches woman using virtual fingerprint scanner
pkline / Getty Images

Biometrics like fingerprints are always "with" the person, so they can be harder to fake, vs. something like using another person’s driver’s license, Rebecca Slisz, manager of product marketing at Imprivata, a digital identity company for healthcare, said in an email interview.

"Biometrics can be used to validate identity in place of a person having to remember a password or having technology that would enable two-factor authentication," she said. "In sum, biometrics are unique to individuals, highly accurate, and are hard to steal or share."

While the new method described in the paper uses the veins in the back of the hands, vein identification is already a thing. Palm vein scanner technology first was used in Japan to verify individuals’ identity using bank ATMs, Slisz said.

"Palm vein is the preferred biometric for healthcare because, for example, [the] iris requires a person to be conscious and look into a camera," she added. "Whereas palm vein can be used to identify an unresponsive patient, as long as there is blood flow to the palm."

Technology that uses vein ID might not be far off, Hanson said. "We have optical sensors capable of imaging wrists, and microprocessors capable of running lightweight neural networks," he said. "I could easily see a wearable deploying such technology within a year or two."

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