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Biometrics: the new wave of identification
From eye readers to hand scanners, security improves

Principal Patricia Wagner has been a big believer in biometrics since a machine that can "read" the shape of a hand stopped a father who had lost a custody fight from spiriting his child away from Lavaland Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M.

Not only do hand-readers help ensure student safety, Wagner says, but the machines are easy to use.Hand-readers like the ones the Albuquerque schools use are made by Recognition Systems of Campbell, Calif., and are being used for everything from controlling entry to a Los Angeles sperm bank to clocking lawyers' hours in Manhattan.

The machines are part of a new generation of devices that identify people by face, fingers, eyes and voice as well as hands and then use biometric techniques to take the computerized measure of a man or woman according to individual characteristics of various body parts.

Once the stuff of science fiction and spy thrillers, biometrics are moving into the mainstream, with the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service as the most prolific user, according to Jeffrey Dunn, head of the government's Biometrics Consortium.

Due to a 1996 change in U.S. law where Congress ordered the INS to use biometric technologies to identify aliens, INS programs now:

Use voice verification systems at remote Canadian border crossings so agents up to 45 miles away can conduct inspections and ask questions before opening the gates.

Test face and speaker recognition systems on a dedicated car lane at the main border crossing with Mexico near San Diego. The project has cut frequent commuters' time in line to a one-minute delay when peak-hour crossing can take up to two hours.

Let 85,000 frequent fliers abroad bypass long lines at busy airports by using an automated hand reader in airport kiosks.

The latest figures show the government is the biggest user of biometrics to date, spending $140 million on body-reading equipment last year compared to $33 million for private industry.

Besides the INS and defense and intelligence agencies commonly thought to employ this sort of James Bond gadgetry, states including Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Texas use fingerprinting and other biometric techniques to detect and deter welfare fraud.

But in a high-tech world in which keys can be lost, PIN numbers forgotten and mother's maiden names purloined by determined identity thieves, analysts predict private industry will quickly turn body-parts-as-passwords into a $1-billion-a-year business.

High-tech trend-watchers at the Gartner Group of Stamford, Conn., expect biometrics to be one of the technologies "that will change everything from the way we run our business to the way we conduct our personal lives" in the 21st century.

The key at the moment is getting businesses to integrate biometrics into their products, says Gartner Group's Jackie Fenn, who expects business to pick up by the end of the year, when Compaq and other computer-makers start bundling fingerprint identifiers and other biometric devices into their overall PC package.

Biometric techniques debuting in May alone at the CardTech/SecuriTech convention in Chicago and elsewhere include Bank United of Texas' trial run for cameras capable of reading the irises of the eyes of ATM users at three branches in Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth.

To show the machines are fast, friendly and foolproof, the bank had identical twins Michael and Richard Swartz try each other's ATM cards, only to be turned down. "We can confuse tellers, but we can't confuse the machine," Michael Swartz told reporters.

The camera reads 266 reference points on an iris -- the colored part of the eye surrounding the pupil -- and then digitizes the photo and sends the image to a computer for verification of the eyeball's owner in seconds.

The system is made by Sensar Inc., a private, for-profit spin-off of the Sarnoff labs in Princeton, N.J., where high-definition and color TV were born.

Britain's largest thrift, Nationwide Building Society, has used the Sensar system for two years and a recent survey of its customers found that 91 percent approve. Trials also are underway in Japan, Norway and Turkey.

But analysts say the iris verification system is costly, adding as much as $5,000 to the $35,000 price tag for a single ATM machine. Banks may consider it worth the money for certain ATMs, but for other businesses and other applications, less costly alternatives are likely to prove more popular even if they assure a slightly lower level of accuracy, security and accountability.

Competing technologies include:

A new, computerized fingerprint technology that gets high marks based on plates of fingertip whorls embedded on super-hard silicon chips full of sensors that use multi-point digitized match-ups. One system developed by Verdicom of Santa Clara, Calif., a joint effort by Lucent Technologies and its venture capital partners, can disable a laptop computer unless the computer keyboard recognizes the user's fingerprints. A second system by privately-held Identix of Sunnyvale, Calif., adapts to a range of products from mobile phones to credit cards and is considered so promising that giant Motorola has just teamed up with Identix to bring the technology to market. A third system by American Biometric, a Canadian firm, is called BioMouse Plus and uses fingerprint scanners to trap unwary users of corporate computer networks.

Digital signatures that let users record a cyber-signature for autographing digital documents or signing themselves onto a secure Internet site. The system developed by Cyber-Sign of Newport Beach, Calif., works by having a user sign an input tablet three times so that future computerized signatures can be verified against the shape and speed of the pen strokes, pen pressure and number of times the pen leaves a writing surface.

Face recognition systems such as the new version of TrueFace by Miros Corp. of Wellesley, Mass. TrueFace recognizes an individual according to the unique brow-to-nose tip triangle and already is used by Mr. Payroll automatic paycheck-cashing machines in hundreds of service stations and grocery stores in 20 states.

Visionics of Jersey City, N.J., a Miros rival, used the Chicago show to unveil its third-generation FaceIt system, which can scan one face against 12 million others per minute and is being incorporated into home-security systems for sale in the United States.

Visionics' face-mapping system was sped up in the wake of its "Mandrake" experiment in London, in which the city put 144 face-scanning cameras in a high-crime area in hopes of lessening neighborhood violence.

That experiment has raised privacy concerns because laws in the United Kingdom and Europe generally prohibit people who collect personal information for one purpose from selling or using it for another reason. U.S. law, however, holds that people's faces, voices or images of body parts aren't private if they're collected publicly or voluntarily provided to a bank, school or other user.

"When you give your biometric identifier to a private institution, what's going to happen to it?" John Woodward, a lawyer, former CIA operations officer and biometrics expert, recently asked Congress, stressing that it's up to Congress to change privacy law.

But Congress has yet to protect the privacy of computerized medical, financial and personnel files. Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal, predicts that "it's going to be awhile" before Congress copes with the privacy questions posed by biometrics and decides if data about your face, hands and eyeballs can be bought, shared or sold.