Why Biometrics and Alternative Authentication Are Important

New avenues of accessibility for privacy and security

Key Takeaways

  • Biometrics are quickly becoming a preferred method of authentication because of the extra security they offer.
  • Extra security isn’t the only benefit that biometrics deliver, though experts also say that biometrics can provide more accessible authentication than passwords.
  • Additionally, new guidelines for accessible authentication recommend biometrics as a possible security method that offers more accessibility options.
Someone using facial recognition for a contactless payment.

Dowell / Getty Images

Biometrics has become a point of contention when it comes to online security, but experts say many users could be missing out on one of the biggest benefits biometrics and other authentication methods bring: more accessibility.

With the rise of consumer privacy and better security, we’ve seen new authentication methods appearing across content and applications that we often use. One of the most common ways that smartphones and tablets have started to utilize is biometric access in the form of facial recognition and fingerprints.

On top of adding a layer of security because biometrics are harder to spoof, experts also say that biometrics can give users an easy way to access content without worrying about remembering passwords. This can be exceptionally useful for users with disabilities.

"With biometrics, you're not relying on remembering passwords," Sheri Byrne-Haber, an accessibility advocate, explained on a call with Lifewire.

"A number of disabilities are related to memory. You can have some type of traumatic brain injury or some type of age-related memory degradation—it could even be attention deficit disorder. You just get distracted easily, and you don't remember what your last password was that you set for something. Biometrics can help with this."

Offering Balance

Over time, the need for more complex passwords has increased, with cybercrime and password spoofing on the rise, as well. Many websites or apps require passwords with capital and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. For some people, remembering these passwords can be complicated, and keeping them stored in a notebook can open the door to even more security issues.

"Biometrics is great for bypassing the whole memory component where it's not great. But it isn’t always perfect."

Of course, there are ways to get around remembering passwords. For example, password managers like Lastpass or 1Password allow you to autofill information into sites that accept it, making it much easier for users with complex passwords.

However, Byrne-Haber says that biometrics and even other authentication methods can offer better balance for users with disabilities by giving them the chance to find something that works perfectly for them.

"Biometrics is great for bypassing the whole memory component where it's not great," she explained. "But it isn’t always perfect. For example, if you're looking at facial recognition, it sometimes struggles with people with craniofacial disabilities."

Byrne-Haber also noted how fingerprint-based authentication like TouchID could exclude users who have disabilities that affect their hands or even injuries that affect their fingerprints. Because of this, websites and apps need to offer multiple ways of authentication.

One method that Byrne-Haber says is especially useful is the "security device" authentication. Essentially, when you log in to an account, your phone or some other smart device receives a notification, which allows you to verify that you are trying to log into your account. Byrne-Haber says this can remove much of the hassle that comes from standard passwords without leaving your accounts unprotected.

Someone's palm being scanned by a biometric scanner.

Chee gin tan / Getty Images

Pressing Onward

For years, accessibility has felt like a side effect—a back-burner topic when companies sit down to create their apps and websites. In recent years, though, Byrne-Haber says we’ve seen much additional support for accessibility from the government and many businesses in the private sector.

Right now, through the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WGAC), W3C is currently working on a new guideline called Accessible Authentication. These new criteria list biometrics and the aforementioned password managers to offer accessible methods for users with disabilities.

Additionally, Byrne-Haber says that the government and many private institutions require vendors to offer accessible authentication options for users before they’ll work with them. A move that she says should hopefully make it easier for companies to see the importance of offering accessible options.

“People get really hung up on how many people are going to use this anyways," Byrne-Haber explained. "And they see the cost versus the trade-off for users, and they decide to drop it." 

"What they don't realize is that VM-ware requires this for vendors. Bank of America requires this for their vendors. Microsoft requires this for their vendors. None of those companies will buy inaccessible software anymore."

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