How Hollywood gets biometrics wrong (and what it gets right)

Setting aside the question of whether rogue robots will create a dystopian future, there is one area that (AI) in movies all seem to coalesce on: biometrics will take over for keys and passwords. There are over 200 movies that show the use of biometrics – here’s a list of 184 of them, and here’s a compilation of clips from several dozen movies.

Whether its fingerprint, voiceprint, iris, retina, face, or other biometrics, there always seems to be some sort of physical scanner in Hollywood depictions of biometrics in action. They have to hold their face or hand up to a device and the device often shines a laser and makes a noise. When they speak, a pass phrase like, “My voice is my password,” is typically required. In other words, the biometrics aren’t particularly fast or easy. The devices don’t just know who people are; they need to be queried and some sort of physical analysis needs to happen after the query.

That’s not how it’s going to play out. In fact, it’s not going to be one biometric that gets a person entrance. It will be a layering of biometrics. They won’t all happen right when you want to open a door. Some will follow you around, maintaining an ongoing assessment of who you are. Other biometrics will be seamlessly assessed from cameras or other in your environment, and still other biometric elements can be added by pinging your phone and asking the phone’s opinion on who you are.

One thing Hollywood got right, though, is how spoof-able biometrics tend to be, whether it’s by removing body parts, taking pictures or videos, or capturing a fingerprint with glue or gummy bears. In one scene in the movie The 6th Day, Adam Gibson, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is prevented from entering a restricted area when a scanner rejects his thumbprint. When a guard approaches asking if he can help, Schwarzenegger holds the guard at gunpoint and says, “Yeah, you can stick your thumb in that.” The guard complies, which gains Schwarzenegger access. Spoofing isn’t necessarily easy – biometric vendors try to make it hard – but most single biometrics are spoof-able, and the movies we watch certainly convey that.

We will see more of these biometric implementations with a mixture of face, voice, and behavioral biometrics combined with hand, eye, or other scans that are seamlessly taken and associated with a given person. This approach substantially increases the difficulty in spoofing, yet it can be done in a completely un-intrusive manner without wasting time. Of course, in a movie it would look like people gain access without doing anything special, and that may take away from some of the “cool factor” in watching biometrics work.

Todd Mozer is the CEO of Sensory. He holds over a dozen patents in speech technology and has been involved in previous startups that reached IPO or were acquired by public companies. Todd holds an MBA from Stanford University, and has technical experience in machine learning, semiconductors, speech recognition, computer vision, and embedded software.

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