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What are active and passive biometric checks?

Liveness checks help organisations to defend against fraud and protect genuine customers – but there are two types of liveness to be aware of: active and passive. 

A liveness check is designed to ensure that the person attempting to register for a product or service is genuinely behind the attempt. By matching the image on the document to the face behind the phone or device.  

Some fraudsters will steal, create or otherwise acquire identity documents specifically to open fraudulent accounts. A liveness check acts as a kind of circuit-breaker because the fraudster is unable to pass it. 

Liveness checks involve video capture of the user via their device’s camera. If a fraudster is using someone else’s documents, they’ll either be scared off by the invitation to a liveness check or the check will recognise they are not the same person from the ID documents. 

Liveness checks are difficult to bypass, but not impossible, and so they’ve had to evolve as fraudsters discovered tactics for spoofing the checks. 

That evolution has led to the development of two different kinds of liveness checks: active and passive. 

The fundamental difference between the two is that active liveness checks ask the user to perform a series of ‘challenge-response’ actions in front of the camera to verify genuine presence, whereas passive liveness conducts the necessary checks without the user being aware of what’s happening. 

For example, an active liveness test may ask the user to smile, to look to one side or towards the ceiling. A passive liveness won’t ask the user to perform these kinds of actions but will instead detect common spoofing giveaways such as edge, depth and motion detection, as well looking at details like skin texture. 

Customer Experience  

In terms of experience, active liveness asks much more of a user in order to open an account. This might be fine if your customers are likely to want a level of assurance and confidence around security and fraud but could work against you if your customers expect a low-effort experience.  

Time 

Active liveness’ challenge-response approach also takes longer than passive liveness’ background analysis. Again, a faster or more measured experience might suit different types of customers better. 

Fraud 

Active liveness arguably gives criminals a step by step set of instructions as to what they need to fake to pass the test, whereas passive liveness withholds that information. 

Active vs Passive 

Fundamentally, both types of liveness deliver high accuracy identity verification and work in different ways to deter and detect fraud. One is not automatically better than the other, as every business has a unique customer base and risk-based approach to consider when implementing liveness checks. 

As with many methods of identity verification, the choice comes down to the delicate balance of risk appetite and customer onboarding. You should be careful to avoid an approach to liveness that benefits one at the expense of the other, and attempt to strike a balance between the two. 


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