Biometrics gets face time
By Vawn Himmelsbach
Biometric technologies often provoke images of Star Trek or Big Brother. But, with more accurate, less expensive choices available, biometrics — a technique of analyzing an individual’s unique characteristics such as fingerprints or eye structure — is becoming a useful tool for verification and access control. While not a panacea, biometrics is finding a place within government and industry, from border control to secure banking.
By Vawn Himmelsbach
Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) has run a six-month field trial in conjunction with the Canada Border Services Agency to test fingerprint and facial recognition technologies. The trial included some 17,000 CIC clients, with enrolments taking place in Hong Kong and Seattle and ports of entry at the Vancouver International Airport and Douglas/Pacific Highway. In Hong Kong and Seattle, clients are asked to provide10 fingerprints and a photograph, which are sent to a standalone database in Ottawa. When the client arrives at a port of entry, they are asked to provide two fingerprints for verification purposes; matching and analysis is done in Ottawa. CIC is also running a field trial at the Etobicoke Refugee Claimant Centre.
Governments and industries around the world have poured a large amount of money into research and development projects to help advance the state of biometrics, says Ed Schaffner, director of positive identification and access control solutions with Unisys Global Public Sector in Illinois, the integrator working with CIC.
Today’s biometric technologies are more accurate than they were in the past, he says, and the size and cost of these technologies have dropped significantly. Japan’s NEC Corp. has developed a high-resolution, medium priced biometric sensor that is more sensitive and durable than standard sensors. And a few companies are coming out with universal fingerprint scanners that read through dirt, water, oil or thin fingerprints, since they work by reading past the layer of the skin to the user’s sub-dermal layer.
Prior to 2001, most biometric technologies were used for forensic purposes. Now most countries are considering the use of biometrics for positive identification of their citizens, said Schaffner. In Malaysia, Unisys rolled out 21 million multi-purpose cards to citizens, which include a fingerprint template and nine other applications, such as driver’s licence and health cards. In South Africa, the integrator has done live scan prints of 22 million of the country’s 43 million citizens to form a national identification database.
“My approach is to try to get to the customer before he comes up with an RFP, to help him understand the challenges and opportunities,” says Schaffner. “Then, if we can, we’ll make suggestions.”
The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) is an early adopter of biometrics through its Restricted Area Identification Card (RAIC).
“Given that this program is basically the first of its kind in the world and has a very unique business requirement, we had to basically develop a solution from scratch,” says Peter Burden, RAIC program manager with CATSA. “We weren’t able to buy this solution off the shelf — it’s been highly customized.”
The overarching requirement was to enhance security at Canadian airports by enabling all airport workers to verify their identity before gaining access to restricted areas. To do this, CATSA is using both fingerprint and iris biometrics, and all airport workers are issued a smart card that includes fingerprint and iris templates.
“We were interested in iris technology — initial testing showed this was going to be a future biometric,” says Burden. “But at the same time there was some hesitation from the general public on iris, so we wanted to provide fingerprint as well because people are more comfortable with it.” About 100,000 airport workers in 29 airports are using the RAIC card.
While the program has been operating for the past two years, CATSA recently started using portable fingerprint readers. The next phase, currently in the planning stages, is to move the program outside of the terminal buildings to secure the outdoor perimeter.
Every biometric method has limitations, and each has a certain percentage of the population it cannot enrol. When you provide two or more methods of biometric identification, you’re covering a higher percentage of the population — and providing a backup for access control.
There are two industries that have sprung up around fingerprinting: AFIS, or automated fingerprint identification systems, which are principally used for law enforcement, and non-AFIS.
Certain technologies have been adopted more than others, says Robert Allen, research analyst of financial services with Frost & Sullivan. Iris and AFIS technologies are popular with governments for border crossings, while banks like voice verification.
In the future, multi-modal biometrics that combine two or more biometrics into one product will become more prevalent, says Sapna Capoor, senior biometrics industry analyst for global markets, AutoID and security with Frost & Sullivan in London, U.K. “The multi-modal trend has begun and these products will work in conjunction but have not got to the phase where they’re integrated as one single product,” she says. “That’s probably going to happen within the short to medium term.”
But what will drive acceptance is not so much security as convenience — for example, the emergence of fingerprint enabled laptops and cellphones.