Compared to a password that’s either too simple to be effective, or too hard to remember, a fingerprint is a great security tool. But they’re not infallible, in fact, they can be easily replicated with just a photo. So researchers are taking fingerprint security one step further and scanning them in three dimensions.

The idea makes a lot of sense. Fingerprints are unique, but when only a 2D image of the print is being used as a reference, it allows for fakes to be made that can fool a sensors. But when you’re capturing a fingerprint in 3D, that adds another dimension of unique data that could be very difficult to fake. Think of an art expert trying to differentiate between an original painting and a fake using just photos. It’s very difficult, because examining each piece in person allows them to see differences in brush strokes and paint thickness that just aren’t there in a 2D representation.


But as secure as it might be, no one will bother using the new approach if it’s not as fast as current technologies, so how do you quickly scan a fingerprint in 3D? Researchers at the University of California, Davis and Berkeley have adapted the same technology that allows an unborn infant to be imaged in the womb—ultrasound. They’ve just managed to shrink it down to a tiny chip that can be easily integrated into modern mobile devices.

The chip is nowhere near as powerful as the ultrasound equipment that’s able to see a growing baby, but it also doesn’t need to be. It uses low-depth, ultrasonic signals that are able to image the unique ridges and valleys of a fingerprint and also the surface of the skin below it to generate a truly unique way to identify a human.


Will it be impossible to fool? Probably not. Scanning someone’s finger against their will is still the easiest way to circumvent the system. But snapping a photograph of a fingerprint off a wine glass? Unfortunately Hollywood is going to have to do better than that when it comes to making a heist seem more believable.

[Applied Physics Letters via Gizmag]