What Are Biometrics?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Explore how biometrics, like fingerprints, DNA, or other physical or behavioral markers, can help prevent fraud, solve crimes, and contribute to national security, as well as unlock your smartphone.

[Featured image] Man uses facial recognition biometrics to gain access to an office building.

Biometrics are the physical characteristics and unique behaviors people exhibit that help us identify them. If you've ever recognized someone by how they walk or how the back of their head looks in a photograph, you used biometrics to identify them. These personalized characteristics and physical markers in our DNA, fingerprints, or voices can help prove identity or locate a suspect in a criminal identification. 

Biometrics are important for various uses, including preventing financial fraud, helping people travel, and investigating crimes. Read on to learn more about different types of biometrics, how industries can use them, and how you can start a career that involves biometric systems. 

What are biometrics? 

Biometrics are biological or behavioral markers, such as fingerprints, retina scans, or gait analysis, that can identify people. Because each person's biometrics are unique and measurable, they can be used as a sort of identification system for fraud prevention, public safety, forensics, and government identification. 

Two main uses of biometrics are verification and identification. When you use your biometrics to verify who you are, you compare your biometrics with the stored biometric data to determine whether or not it’s a match. For example, you might use biometric verification to unlock your smartphone. You preset the biometric password—for example, by allowing the computer to scan your thumbprint—and the device will compare your thumb against the stored scan every time you want to unlock your device. 

To use biometrics for identification, a system compares the biometric data with a database of previously collected data to look for the potential identity of an unknown person. Investigators use this sort of biometric data in forensic investigations where the police might have, for example, a fingerprint associated with a suspect. The investigators can compare the fingerprint they collected at the crime scene with stored data to determine whose fingerprint it was. 

Read more: What Is Authentication?

Types of biometrics

Biometrics can be behavioral or physical. Physical biometrics include your DNA, the layout of your face, your voice, your fingerprints, your retinas or irises, a map of your veins, the geometry of your hands, your heartbeat, and more. Behavioral biometrics include your gait, how you sign your name, how you type, and your speech patterns. Here's a closer look at how experts can use some of these characteristics for biometric identification. 

1. DNA

DNA is the genetic code that instructs your body how to develop and grow, and it's in all of your cells, including your blood, hair, or skin cells. Unless you are lucky enough to have an identical twin, you are the only person in the world with your DNA, which makes it useful for identification. DNA biometrics are commonly used in forensics. 

2. Face

Facial recognition biometric systems use an image of your face to confirm your identity. Computer vision makes it possible to analyze the geometry of your face, like the measurements between your features. An important area of research in facial recognition is developing systems that can better detect faces obscured by glasses or face masks to reduce false alarms.

3. Voiceprint

Your voice has a unique “voice print,” created from your unique behaviors and the structure and anatomy of your throat, vocal cords, and mouth. Taken as a whole, you can map your voice with sound waves to create a model of the way you speak, which can be used as a biometric system.

4. Fingerprints

Fingerprints, or the unique design of ridges on the ends of your fingers and toes, contain biometric data you can use for identification. Police and other investigators commonly use fingerprint identification and DNA evidence because this type of evidence can be left behind at crime scenes. 

5. Eyes

Your iris and retina have a unique design that you can map to provide a model of your eye. It's also possible to collect data about the movement of your eyes or what (and how) you look at things because eye movements are the product of complex neurological systems and physical anatomy, making it nearly impossible to replicate another person’s eye movements. 

What are biometrics used for?

People can use biometric data for a wide range of uses, from opening a smartphone and proving identity to preventing credit card fraud and other forms of identity theft. Companies may use biometrics to restrict access to buildings or rooms within them. Here are some common applications for biometrics in forensics, government, and preventing fraud. 


Police investigators have been using biometric data for forensic analysis since at least 1869 when the British Parliament passed the Habitual Criminals Act. This law called for the police to take images of people who committed a crime so that they could build a database of known criminals. 

Today, investigators commonly use DNA or fingerprint analysis because those types of biometric data can be left behind at the scene of a crime. When people touch objects, they leave behind fingerprints. If their blood, skin cells, hair, or other biological material falls at the crime scene, they leave behind DNA. In addition to identifying criminals, investigators can also use forensic biometric data to identify disaster victims or help locate missing people. 


The US government uses biometric data for several national security and counterterrorism purposes, including limiting access to sensitive databases and other digital information. Other government uses include limiting access to physical locations like military bases, processing immigration documents, and helping people travel in and out of the country legally. 

Prevent fraud

Banks and other financial institutions can use biometric data to ensure that only authorized individuals can make payments or access financial accounts online. Biometric data is especially important for financial institutions as generative AI programs become stronger and make it easier for criminals to create new identities, a process called synthetic identity theft. Biometric data may become more important since it tends to be more difficult to fabricate, especially when used with other forms of identification. 

Who uses biometrics? 

If you’re interested in working with biometrics in your career, three potential job titles to choose from include biometrics systems engineer, bioinformatic scientist, and fingerprint technician. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the following jobs to grow faster than average.

1. Biometrics systems engineer

Average annual salary (US): $117,921 [1]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2022 to 2032): 5 percent [2]

Education requirements: To become a biometrics systems engineer, you’ll likely need to earn a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering or a related field. 

As a biometrics systems engineer, you design, build, and test biometric systems that capture, measure, and compare biometric data. You could build systems for law enforcement, health care, financial institutions, or any company implementing biometric identification programs. In this role, you may not collect and process biometric data, but you will be creating the necessary systems for other people to work with biometric data. 

2. Bioinformatics scientist

Average annual salary (US): $118,913 [3]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2022 to 2032): 23 percent [4]

Education requirements: You may be able to become a bioinformatics scientist with a bachelor’s degree, but you likely need to earn a master’s degree or a doctorate. 

As a bioinformatics scientist, you will work to create and improve the computer systems required to analyze and engage with biometric data, such as DNA datasets. In this role, your work empowers other scientists to work with the data. You may also work with pharmacological or genomic data.

3. Fingerprint technician

Average annual salary (US): $42,858 [5]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2022 to 2032): 13 percent [6]

Education requirements: To become a fingerprint technician, you may need a bachelor’s degree in biology or forensics. 

As a fingerprint technician, you help take and match fingerprint biometric data against the data stored in databases like the National Criminal Identification Center (NCIC)—often in a criminal justice setting. In this role, you may also be called to give expert testimony about how you came to the identification conclusions in any given case.  

Learn more with Coursera 

Using biometrics is changing how people interact with their environments by protecting valuables and preventing crimes. If you’re ready to take the next step and embark on a biometrics-related career, consider taking Bioinformatic Methods I, a course offered by the University of Toronto on Coursera. This class takes approximately 19 hours to complete and covers topics like genetic analysis, bioinformatics analysis, evolution, and comparative genomics.

Article sources


Glassdoor. “Salary: Biometric Systems Engineer in the United States, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/biometric-systems-engineer-salary-SRCH_KO0,26.htm.” Accessed February 20, 2024. 

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