Ensuring the security of public safety smartphones and applications should be a priority for decision makers. Failing to do so could result in unauthorized access to sensitive criminal justice information and lessen the level of trust and confidence that citizens have for the agency.

This means finding a balance that prevents unauthorized device and/or program access without adding to the already challenging job of being a police officer. Biometric authentication is both effective and user-friendly, making it a great way to add a significant level of security without being burdensome to the average police officer.

Within the context of smartphone operations, biometrics generally refer to fingerprint authentication, facial recognition and iris scanning. Of the options listed, fingerprint authentication is the most commonly used, while iris recognition provides a quick, effective alternative in situations where the fingers are covered.

Replacing Passwords and Increasing Security

Biometric authentication can provide rapid yet secure access to a smartphone while overcoming many of the shortcomings of passwords. Given the myriad of public safety applications that are likely to be running on an agency-issued smartphone, it’s easy to envision how the traditional approach of using passwords presents a challenging conundrum.

Passwords are vulnerable to compromise unless they are regularly changed and sufficiently complex. These requirements mean passwords are often forgotten when they’re most needed or, worse, they’re stored in such a way that they’re easily accessible to unauthorized persons. Passwords are the weak link in agency security and forgotten passwords tie up an inordinate amount of IT support time while decreasing employee productivity.

Conversely, biometric authentication is always available, impossible to forget and very difficult to compromise. Not surprisingly, it’s finding increased utilization among those agencies that are issuing full-capability smartphones to their officers.

Addressing Officer Safety and Effectiveness

Biometric authentication fits a variety of use cases within law enforcement. Many officers carry their smartphone on a belt or clip holster. With a little practice, the phone can be quickly accessed as it’s drawn by using the phone’s fingerprint reader. This ensures the phone is ready to use by the time it’s in front of the user, even if the phone was in sleep mode. Activating the phone in this manner contributes to officer safety, as an officer spends less time interacting with the keyboard and can maintain better awareness of the person(s) being contacted.

In an environment where fingerprint authentication may not be practical due to the use of gloves, such as cold weather or while working a crime scene, iris scanning is an effective option that provides a greater level of security. It is available on the Samsung Galaxy S8, S8+ Note8, S9 and S9+ new S9 smartphones. Iris scan is easy set up and — since it uses infrared illumination — functions well in the low-light or darkened environments often encountered by law enforcement.

Providing In-Field Benefits

Biometrics are also benefitting public safety in ways beyond authentication of a user. Many law enforcement agencies are now using third-party biometric applications or peripherals to aid in the identification of a subject contacted in the field. This is particularly beneficial in situations where there is a reason to detain someone for investigation, but insufficient probable cause to arrest. Prolonged detentions can result in complaints or claims of unlawful police action, yet releasing someone before determining their true identity could mean a missed opportunity to arrest a wanted subject.

There are two approaches currently in use: facial recognition and fingerprint scanning. Using the camera of a smartphone equipped with a facial recognition app allows an officer to quickly check an unknown subject against a selected database for an indication of a person’s likely identity. Many departments have found that using a database comprised of booking photos is effective, as the images tend to have a consistency in terms of format, lighting and resolution. Booking photos have also proven more acceptable to privacy advocates because of the way the original photo was obtained.

It is important to note that this type of in-field facial recognition is not confirmation of a person’s identity, but a strong indication of who the person may be. It is then the responsibility of the officer making the contact to confirm the information. This most often occurs when the subject acknowledges their identity after being confronted with their own booking photo.

The use of third-party peripherals and applications to conduct in-field fingerprint scans has become more common as the devices have decreased in size, while improving in accuracy. Since the devices can be powered by a USB port, some are now small enough to be carried in a pocket until they’re needed. Whether identification is determined by facial recognition or fingerprint, the benefit to public safety is significant.

From smartphone security to officer safety to in-field identification, biometrics are bringing advanced capabilities to mobile devices in public safety that would have been unheard of just a few years ago. With these technologies just now becoming mainstream, it’s worth keeping an eye on new and enhanced applications that may be developed for them in the future.

Learn more about public safety technology that is improving officer safety and access to information.