COVID-19’s impact on Digital Identity and Biometrics


Previous we explored the human cost of COVID-19 and how this pandemic has affected the Global economy. With the increase of digital services due to Social Distancing and isolation measures, we are experiencing the uptake of “megatrend” technologies. With these technologies comes the increased demand for digital identity authentication solutions that work across multiple endpoints, in a user friendly & application appropriate. These solutions will also have to comply with regulations (think GDPR…), decrease (or at least maintain) current levels of fraud, and lastly, have the capacity to scale and meet sudden surges in demand; verifiable digital identities are going to play a pivotal role in our digital lives.

Biometrics – “You can’t touch this”

I have discussed the impact of Social Distancing from a digital point of view, however, form a very real physical point of view touching fingerprint sensors on shared or public devices will be restricted during a crisis. This includes sensors and numerical touchpads that are integrated into common day hardware devices such as ATMs and point-of-sale (POS) devices, door handles, kiosks, etc. The New York Police Department has already stopped the use of their fingerprint entry system in their headquarters.
This is just the tip of the iceberg though, what happens if there is a need for a device for legal reasons or national security, for example, border control… operators will need to continuously disinfect these devices. This may lead to a shift to adopt biometric sensors that avoid touch in shared and public spaces; facial recognition would be an obvious candidate and is already being widely used in China to make everyday payments. We have already seen airports integrate technologies that would vastly reduce contact by allowing passengers to identify themselves and pass through security checkpoints and board planes with a “single token” verification system; avoiding the need for unnecessary contact by replacing the physical act of presenting a combination of payment cards, boarding tickets, and passports.

Biometric Payment Cards

Due to the impact of Coronavirus in Asia, many factories are not going to be able to keep up with the production of biometric card payments; therefore from a manufacturing point of view, the release and adoption of biometric payment cards are likely to be hindered from large-scale deployments. (I will delve deeper into the manufacturing aspect below in “Biometric Sensors”.)

Over the past 2-3 years the major card payment companies, e.g. Visa & MasterCard, have been trialling biometric credit cards with banking organisation in both the US and Europe. In 2019, NatWest piloted a biometric payment card with 150 customers, in partnership with MasterCard.
There are obvious reasons for biometric payment card adoption, mostly higher value and more secure contactless transactions. This has been emphasised in the wake of the Coronavirus, many countries with high adoption of contactless payments have raised the spending limit in an effort to minimise contact between workers and customers.

Biometric Sensors

China and South Korea were the worst hit by COVID-19, with the epicentre now shifting to Europe and the United States. These Asian countries are also the manufacturing centres of biometric sensor development. Analysis of high-frequency metrics (e.g. road congestion, energy utilisation, pollution levels) indicate that China’s factories are estimated to be operating at about 70%-80%, this will negatively impact the supply of biometric sensors to OEMs, hence the likelihood that the rollout of biometric payment cards will be delayed by a few years.
There may also be a shift in demand for certain types of biometric sensors, namely ‘non-touch’ sensors. If the Coronavirus crisis and Social Distancing measures last through to 2021, I imagine there will be high demand for hybrid devices that both identify a person but also perform a quick ‘at range’ biomedical check to ensure the person is not showing initial symptoms of being infected. In China, we have already seen the implementation of body heat sensors being deployed by police and at airport scanners. This may kick start a trend of combining biomedical and biometric technologies into wearable technologies, creating applications that can identify you and know how your health is doing.

Providing insights into a person’s body temperature, blood pressure, ECG and heart rate may not be information a citizen is willing to share, especially if it were to negatively affect your travel plans or even your health or life insurance premium…smokers beware.
There will need to be adequate personal data security, privacy and trust frameworks that are adhered to. It will be interesting to see if the government permits more insight into our personal data, under the veil of ‘protection’, once we exit these ‘emergency’ times.

Digital Identity Adoption

Estimates predict that there will be an additional 3 billion digital identities by 2025. COVID-19 is going to accelerate rates of adoption between different verticals and applications.
One of the more interesting applications that have resulted from the current COVID-19 situation is a need for digital analytics that enable countries to monitor and contain future influenza outbreaks. Many countries with advanced national identity schemes have actively started to analyse data from our “digital-exhaust”. “Exhaust data” consists of the trail of data left by practically any activity that takes places over the Internet or computer system. This includes mobile and device data, social networks, health networks, financial and payment systems, geospatial data, time-series data, travel & transport data, and more; all very useful for predictive analytics essential for containing or tracking a virus like COVID-19. Utilising these forms of data in ‘emergency’ times is understandable, however, how organisations and entities handle our ‘surveillance’ data in the future is a real cause for concern. For instance, China had some very interesting analytics tools scrapping data from personal social media and messaging platforms such as WeChat (the Chinese WhatsApp). Determining who had come into contact with who, and where, lead to vital information about how the virus is spreading, but would this be too intrusive in more ‘normal’ times, especially in Western cultures that are a lot less authoritarian.

The Digital ID verification process will have to answer the following questions:

1. Is this a real user?
2. Is this authorised to use the data it has presented?
3. Can you do business with the data this user has provided?
4. What are the risks of doing business with this user, and do we need to perform further checks?

Are these verification processes going to be left solely to organisations? Or do new technologies like Blockchain and AI offer vertical innovations that can be adopted by all sectors of business and society. As a result of COVID-19,an increasing number of businesses have been forced to operate in an online manner, having to accurately and proficiently answer the verification questions above are becoming essential. Remote technologies and integrated frameworks will enable organisations to focus on core offerings instead of being burdened by verification, data privacy and regulatory issues.