Computers aren’t just getting smarter, they’re studying us more closely too. Whether it’s in the name of public safety, fraud protection or simple convenience, we’re feeding AI systems details that identify us and track our comings and goings.

This is part of a CNET special report exploring the benefits and pitfalls of facial recognition.

Equipped with electronic ears, eyes and brains, a sea of devices now monitor human activity and characteristics. The list includes everything from smart speakers, laptops and phones, to even doorbells and locks. You may not have noticed this trend, but it’s real, and growing.

CNET has spent the last two weeks documenting the current state of facial recognition technology, but that’s just one method of gathering data directly from your person. Here are a few examples of how other biometric technologies have seeped into the fabric of daily life, and where things could go next.  

Fingerprint readers everywhere

Devices that can read, capture and match fingerprints to specific individuals have been with us for decades. In 1969, the FBI began looking at ways computers could help facilitate fingerprint identification.

Back then the idea was to free as many FBI staff members as possible from this tedious, labor-intensive task. By 1975 the Bureau’s efforts, aided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, led to a functional fingerprint scanner prototype based on capacitive sensors.

Now fast forward to 2013. That’s when biometrics truly became mainstream, designed for consumer convenience, not only serious crime fighting. That year Apple integrated its Touch ID fingerprint reader into the iPhone 66 Plus, and 5S. It also placed the security system in its new iPad models.Enlarge Image

Since then both Google and Microsoft have launched similar identification solutions. Examples include Pixel Imprint for Google’s Pixel phones, and Windows Hello available on Microsoft Surface laptops and tablets. Other device makers have adopted fingerprint reader technology as well. On this list of high-end handsets are the Motorola G7, OnePlus 6TSamsung Galaxy S10, and Sony’s Xperia XZ3.

All these phones, save the OnePlus 6T and Galaxy S10, use capacitive readers. They harness the same principle that the FBI did to build its early fingerprint scanner. Capacitors in the scanner measure fingertips for slight differences in electrical conductivity. The scanner then forms a finger ridge pattern from these differences.rge Image

The ultrasonic fingerprint reader on the Samsung Galaxy S10. 

John Kim/CNET

The OnePlus 6T is quite different. Its sensor is optical, essentially a tiny camera that takes photos of fingertips. Since it creates flat, 2D images, this reader is relatively easy to fool. Not so with the Galaxy S10’s ultrasonic sensor.

The S10 actively pings your finger with sound waves when it’s touched, These waves bounce off skin and back to the reader for analysis. With that data, it constructs a detailed 3D image that’s tougher to duplicate or spoof.     

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Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are smart enough to recognize individual people by their voice.

They know your voice

The smart speaker’s rise in popularity is undeniable. The number of US smart speaker users is expected to swell to 76.5 million by 2020. According to eMarketer, that’s up from 16 million in 2016, a compounded annual growth rate of 47.9%.

Amazon’s Echo products with Alexa onboard still represent the lion’s share of these gadgets. Google Assistant though is in hot pursuit. And as the companies compete for market share, the capabilities of both voice assistants has steadily increased.

These speakers don’t just listen out for your spoken commands. They can recognize, and distinguish between the voices of individual home members. That enables them to deliver personalized responses and results to match specific people.

It’s a neat trick that comes in handy when you want a rundown of your personal schedule, tasks, shopping lists and so on. For this to work, you’ll need to train these systems. And that means providing them with numerous voice samples. The audio snippets then find their way to remote servers for comparison, identification, fast retrieval and storage.

The eyes can’t lie

Like fingerprint readers and voice recognition, iris-scanning technology has slowly crept into ordinary life. The iris, the pigmented area of the eye outside the pupil, is unique from person to person. Even individuals with the same genetic makeup — identical twins, for instance — will exhibit distinct iris patterns dissimilar from each other. That makes the allure of this identity confirmation technique strong.

The potentially high speed and accuracy of iris scans is also compelling. A typical scanning system consists of a digital video camera, a low-energy infrared light emitter, plus hardware and software processing.

The scanner emits an invisible IR light beam that illuminates the iris briefly. The system records the iris colors and other unique features. It then breaks the pattern down into a 256 byte code. An unknown individual’s iris code is compared with a database of enrolled codes. The entire scanning, matching and recognizing process takes just a few seconds.Enlarge Image

Samsung offered four different ways of unlocking the Galaxy S9 with biometrics — facial recognition, iris scanning, fingerprint scanning, and a combination of iris and face called Intelligent Scan. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Some consumer devices have included iris-scanning features for years. Samsung chose Qualcomm’s 3D Sonic fingerprint reader for the Galaxy S10, but the Samsung Galaxy S7S8 and S9 phones all shipped with iris-based identification systems.

In 2017, Qualcomm entered a license agreement with iris-based authentication company Eyelock. That could be a sign this access control method will soon find a home on Qualcomm mobile processors and platforms. Enlarge Image

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