The evolution of identity verification

Proving your identity has been around forever from claiming your status with jewellery to complex vein patterns on the body. Let’s explore the evolution of identity verification.

Verification over 100,000 years ago

“Are you who you say you are?” Historically, physical features and possessions were the most common method to identify and verify a person. While very straightforward, this method was subject to human error. Over the years, new identification and verification methods have emerged.

Jewellery and tattoos

Decorative objects like jewellery held personal information such as wealth, identity, and family history. The oldest beads were found in Africa and Israel, dating back 100,00 years ago. The Maori of New Zealand showed detailed tattoos communicating an individual’s status and membership in a community.

Governmental record keeping

When civilisations started to form, the first governments oversaw the economy, trade, and taxes. Verification evolved from pointing out physical characteristics to written record-keeping.

The Babylonian and Roman Empire

The Babylonians (4000 BC) counted their citizens on clay tablets. They tallied the numbers of men, women, children, produce, and other goods in the Empire. The census estimated the ration needed to feed the population and the taxes to implement. 

The Roman Empire set a new standard for counting the population. The censor (443 BC) was the magistrate collecting population statistics and overseeing tax collection. The Romans conducted a consensus every five years to keep track of the growing population. Families were summoned to return to the man’s place of birth to be counted. 

The data collected included personal information like family ties, wealth, and owned property. A registered citizen could be called up for military service or receive grain. Various documents dating from that era, such as deeds, citizenship records, and birth certificates, are still common today. Romans did not carry proof of identity with them. Proving their existence and rights was done by word of mouth.

The origin of the passport

The concept has been as old as empires and countries. Visiting a foreign country required being under the ruler’s protection to avoid getting into trouble. The first documents and royal letters served as visas. Passports today embrace the possibilities of modern technology with microchips, biometrics, and barcodes.

King Henry V

The invention of the passport is credited to King Henry V of England in 1414. He created ‘safe conduct’ documents for English nationals visiting foreign countries. With the royal record, the traveller was ensured safety while staying in a neighbouring country.

Photo-based identity documents

William Notman was a professional photographer and introduced the first form of photo identification during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Employees and visitors of the exhibition were required to carry a card with their picture and undergo checks verifying if they were eligible to enter the showground.

Passports, as we know them today, originate from the early 20th century. The document was valid for two years and included the holder’s photograph, signature, and description. These details included the shape of the face and other features like complexion. However, there were no official regulations on the type of information provided or what should be visible in the photograph.

First World War

The aftermath of the First World War showed the pressing need for worldwide identification documents. Even within borders, the urge for control and security propelled global decisions. The League of Nations, tasked with maintaining world peace, standardised passports in 1920. A single woman was able to apply for a passport in her name. Married women were mentioned in their husbands’ passports and couldn’t cross a border alone.

Centralised criminal records

The Metropolitan Police Act 1829 led to the first modern police force. Sir Robert Peel introduced the Act of Parliament. The public order system was fragmented, and records were difficult to find. Peel focused on a centralised police force and printed police records in numbered files. The manual filing process helped the police forces in the early 19th century verify suspects and evaluate data in their investigations.

Personal ID Cards

The census of 1849 ignited the decentralised personal number (PN) system in The Netherlands. At the beginning of World War II, personal cards with unique numeric identifiers were distributed amongst the whole population, acting as a lifetime identification and verification document. After the state of Israel was established in 1948, a PN system was introduced.

The Population Registry Law established the required data like name, ethnic group, and entry date into Israel.

Social Security Number

The first Social Security Number (SSN) cards were distributed in 1936. The sole purpose was to identify workers and track their earnings; however, it wasn’t an easy task. There was no prior infrastructure, and the program was meant to serve tens of millions of people. The small paper card was a token for the number assigned to the worker and given to the employer to note down earnings.

From paper-based entries to digital

Until the late 20th century, records were kept and checked manually. The United States reformed this process by computerising public records in the seventies. As the procedures evolved, identification and verification became focal points during the data collection. Digital records made cross-checking possible. Institutions could verify if citizens received welfare benefits or paid their taxes without looking through file cabinets.

Personal Identification Numbers

Computers revolutionised identification and verification processes worldwide. Paper-based systems gradually made way for digital systems. The banking sector saw societies move towards cashless transactions. Wallets became thinner but carried more tokens ranging from library cards to loyalty cards and later bank (credit) chip cards secured by numerical passwords such as Personal Identification Numbers (PINs).

The first Automated Teller Machine (ATM) was installed in a bank in England in 1967.  The machine used carbon cheques, matched the print against a PIN, and dispensed cash.

Biometric identity verification

Identification and verification gradually found their way into various applications, and data collection analysis became inevitable. Our characteristics can each be evaluated to determine if we are who we say we are. Today, biometrics facilitate the modern and connected world while protecting data, identity, and access to services.

Commonly used types of biometrics

Fingerprints represent one of the most common forms of biometrics. The minutiae, the pattern of ridges and valleys in a finger, is the most distinct fingerprint feature and is unlikely to be duplicated.

Facial biometrics is easy to deploy, implement and use quickly. A scanner captures an image of the person’s face and converts it into a model. Verification happens when the model compares with one stored in a biometrics database.

Smartphone fingerprint recognition 

Biometric verification became available to the average consumer when Apple included a fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5S. Touch ID was replaced by Face ID in 2017. Unlocking a phone without memorising another password was a true revelation in consumer goods and soon became the standard.

Verification applications

When identifying or authenticating a person, reliability is essential. Biometrics secures sensitive digital processes and helps fight against document fraud, identity theft, and cybercrime. Today, many public and private sectors see the benefits of secure biometric verification systems.

Verifying voters on election day

The voting process starts with the identification of eligible voters. Before election day, citizens must be included in the voters’ register with their biometrics captured. The identification system can then verify a registered voter’s biometrics before they cast their votes on the day.

Verification in the EU Entry-Exit System

The Schengen Zone guarantees free movement for more than 400 million EU citizens and non-EU nationals living in the EU or visiting as tourists, students, or business travellers. The EU Entry-Exit System (EES) will reinforce the internal security of the Schengen Zone through the coordination and sharing of biometric data.

Each time a passenger crosses an EU external border, the EES digital infrastructure will register data to assess risk and automatically calculate the (remaining) length of stay. On entry, four fingerprints and facial recognition will be used. Either one of these is acceptable on exit.

Identity Verification in Forensics

A safe and secure society is one of the biggest priorities for governments. Fingerprints were the first biometrics widely used for identity verification. Biometrics is vital for (military) access control and tracking who enters or returns to the country. Checks can be performed on patrol by verifying identity documents using a handheld device.

Automated Fingerprint Identification System

Fingerprints are a fundamental tool in every police force to identify people with a criminal history. Reforms helped police forces gain and process more data, improving crime statistics and analysis. Developments from a century ago formed the basis for the modern-day Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS).

Automated Multi-modal Biometric Identification System

Today, various technologies, such as the Automated Multi-modal Biometric Identification System (AMBIS), speed up police investigations by matching iris scans and fingerprints against an existing database of individuals.

NFC verification technology

Another development in identity document verification is Near Field Communication (NFC) technology. NFC enables devices to communicate at a distance—for example, access to a room with a fob key or contactless payments. Most passports issued today have NFC chips. Readers will extract data embedded within the passport, and border guards can perform checks against the information.

Reducing online fraud

Establishing an identity online is essential to prevent false identities or fraud. Banks and trading platforms must ensure the client’s identity when opening an account and over time. The Know Your Customer (KYC) process includes ID card verification, document verification, and biometric verification.

Reliable verification solutions

Laxton recognises the importance of a diligent identity verification system. The global team provides self-designed equipment and software to register and verify citizens. The seamless integration of our devices and software systems ensures an excellent user experience for citizens and operators. Laxton continuously expands the variety of verification solutions in the Citizen Identity, Certified Elections, and Security industries.