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Biometric Adoption: Does it have to be all or nothing?

Starting in 1953, New York City subway riders paid with tokens – a solution that came to be when engineers couldn’t figure out how to create a machine that accepted the different types of coins for what was then a 15-cent fare. The subway token was – in its own way – a technology solution to a technical challenge.

Of course, by 1993, innovation had progressed, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) began implementing the MetroCard, a lighter, more automated solution used even today.

Interestingly, from 1993-2003, even though the MetroCard worked flawlessly, the MTA allowed riders to continue to use tokens. The MTA understood that innovation is an easier adjustment for some than for others. By 2003, once it was clear that the MetroCard was a smarter solution from every perspective, the token was discontinued. The MetroCard story teaches us that all new technology is subject to scrutiny and vetting by both experts and users, and it takes time until they are fully accepted.

Biometric identification technology is no exception to this process, and while it has been around for years in various forms, only recently has it gained broad market acceptance for its ability to save time and money, and increase efficiency, security and accuracy.

Still, some have resisted this change, citing privacy or data security concerns. Ultimately, it is up to the builders of biometrics technology to ensure that those concerns are properly addressed.

But for those thinking of implementing biometric identification technology, can an interim solution be implemented?

Interim Solutions Can Work

Implementing new technology often follows a ‘parallel process’ with multiple systems in place – as in the case of the MTA allowing both tokens and MetroCards for a decade. Likewise, most smartphones today have a biometric unlock feature – either using fingerprint identification or facial recognition – but not everyone chooses to use it, preferring to use PIN codes or patterns to keep their phones secure.  Passport control has also followed this approach. Travelers can save considerable time by opting-in to biometric passport control lanes, but can still elect to go through traditional passport control lanes. In each of these examples, adopting a new, more convenient and more secure option does not necessitate eliminating the previous one order to see a benefit.

Many companies and organizations interested in incorporating biometrics can follow and benefit from this approach. It isn’t necessary for them to change the entire system immediately, which might make some users uncomfortable.  Rather, implementing the new system in parallel with the existing method allows users to opt-in over time. Often, if the technology has significant advantages, organizations will see a swift adoption from their user base. In the case of the MTA, by 2003, a decade after the first implementation of the MetroCard, only 8% of riders were still using tokens. The vast majority of users understood the advantages of adopting the MetroCard. That made the MTA’s decision to discontinue tokens an easy one.

So too with biometric adoption. If history is any indication, technological innovation doesn’t move backwards. We won’t see anyone going back to the fax machine from e-mails. Biometric adoption doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing game, but in the future, biometrics will become the status quo for identification.


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