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Biometrics – is it really the panacea for all security problems?

02 October 2006

Christos Papakyriacou discusses biometrics and its potential applications.

In recent years biometric technology has been heralded as a way to crack down on numerous security problems, from stopping terrorism to making computer networks within businesses more secure. However, can biometrics really be viewed as a cure for all these problems?
The Government has signalled its backing for biometrics and has undertaken trials to include information such as fingerprints, iris patterns and a facial image to be used within recognition maps into its proposed ID cards. Coincidentally, from October 2006, the US Government is demanding that all countries, which are part of the US visa waiver scheme, must begin biometric passports and in March 2006 the first British passport containing biometric information was issued.
With such confidence in the technology from the public sector, private businesses are beginning to take note and are starting to develop new and innovative ways to integrate the technology into existing applications.
A potential replacement to PIN numbers, fingerprints and iris recognition are individual to each user and cannot be lost, stolen or replicated, making it a very safe method of identification. Because biometrics is very secure, some of the first industries to begin using the technology are facilities management, IT, banking and finance.
Biometrics initially had its fair share of problems when it was launched on the market. For it to work efficiently within an organisational setting, it is essential that the sensors can read every fingerprint and process the data in a split-second with minimal errors. However, early sensors had multiple problems. Constantly in contact with skin, the sensors inevitably became deposited with oils from the skin, dirt and other detritus, which affected their reading. With multiple layers, the fingerprint can be read in multiple ways. The surface layer is the most commonly read print and the one visible to the naked eye, but the print is also replicated through the many layers of skin, becoming less affected by external factors the further it is located from the surface. The exposed layer is constantly being eroded and altered by mechanical or physical means, becoming calloused, dry and simply just dirty; therefore a reading only of the surface fingerprint can often be inaccurate.
Leading the field in the biometrics arena is AuthenTec, an American company using radio frequency (RF) sensors to read fingerprints. Working in a similar manner to sonar, the radio signals penetrate the surface layer of the skin to read the print contained within the live, highly conductive layer that lies just beneath the skin's dry outer surface layer. Using RF, all prints regardless of the condition of the skin can be read, making biometrics a more feasible option.
One of the first markets to embrace biometrics has been the PC and peripheral market. With most PCs and laptops at home and in an organisational setting containing very sensitive information, current statistics illustrate that at present well over a million devices contain biometric sensors. Not just limited to niche brands of PCs and laptops, many of the industry leaders are starting to integrate the technology into their existing products.
The wireless technology industry is also beginning to adopt biometrics. Although not currently available on the market in the UK and the USA, mobile phones with integrated biometrics readers are becoming more and more popular in Asia. As mobile phones evolve and store various information such as music files, photos, email and personal contact information, biometrics is being used as an important means of protection.
With some of the leading high street banks investing millions in systems to allow customers to perform basic banking requests via their GPRS connection and the increased drive towards purchasing goods using a handset, mobile phones now require higher levels of security than a four digit PIN. Easily integrated into a phones design, biometric swipe readers offer even greater levels of protection enabling secure authentication for mobile commerce and wireless banking, but the technology can also be fully customised to control functions such as speed dialling making mobile handsets easier to use.
With security gaining increasing importance amongst British businesses, one of the most obvious applications for biometrics is within organisational access control systems, helping to limit access to unauthorised personnel.
Swipe card technology has been used within access control systems for a number of years, but these solutions also suffer from many problems. Easily lost or forgotten, swipe cards result in time and money being spent replacing them and they can be easily replicated. However, with biometrics lost, forgotten or stolen access cards are a thing of the past as all the information needed to identify an employee is contained within their fingerprints. Nevertheless, similar to a lot of new technology, biometrics initially had its fair share of problems.
Biometric technology could eventually phase out any security systems requiring either a password or PIN. The technology could therefore be easily integrated into ATMs and within Point-of-Sale systems enabling all transactions to be authorised using a fingerprint. A leading supermarket is currently trialling a “Touch and Pay” system within local stores in the Oxford area and the results of this trail could have major repercussions on UK retailing.
One area of business that is currently suffering tremendously from fraud is eCommerce. Recently published figures from the Association of Payment Clearing Services (APACS) stated that the one area of card fraud on the rise was on internet, phone and mail order transactions, when the card is not present, resulting in a loss of £183.2m. However, although consumers are fully behind the use of biometrics, getting them to purchase peripherals for PCs to allow them to trade online will be a measure of their belief in the technology.
In fact, biometrics could potentially be used within any environment requiring a form of identification from the local gym and video shop to the train, underground or bus station when validation of a season ticket is required.
Although biometrics is still relatively new within the industry, with the overwhelming backing it has received from numerous governments around the world, it is sure to become a major part of everyday life. No longer a preserve of science fiction, biometrics will no doubt touch nearly every aspect of our lives. The technology is due to be integrated into all passports and ID cards once the scheme is launched.

Christos Papakyriacou is managing director, Alpha Micro Components

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