Biometrics is overcoming barriers to become a viable method of identity authentication. Stronger sta

Many people associate biometrics with James Bond and Star Trek, probably because, until recently, only James Bond and the crew of the starship Enterprise were using it.

Since Randall Fowler, founder of Identix, patented the optical fingerprint scanning system in 1978, manufacturers and analysts alike have predicted the day when our bodies and behavior would win out as the ultimate identification credentials. But a number of substantial technological and psychological barriers have slowed acceptance of biometrics outside government agencies and the prison system.

However, during the past five years, several factors have created an environment in which biometrics may finally begin to spread its wings.

Standards, Technology Hasten Acceptance

First, manufacturers of biometric identification products have adopted existing standards and created new standards, addressed public concerns about privacy, and drastically reduced false accept and false reject rates.

Second, radical increases in computing power, coupled with radical declines in the cost of that power, have brought biometric throughput rates into the ballpark of what is tolerated by commercial access control users.

Third, advanced technology itself has become more acceptable. As a result, customers are more comfortable buying technologically complex security products, and we are more comfortable selling them.

Lastly, growing concerns about the security of intellectual property and E-commerce transactions have attracted massive investments in developing the necessary tools to protect computers and the networks they are attached to.

Need, Budget, Place Guide Biometric Choice

Knowing when and how to weave biometrics into the security fabric of a customer’s enterprise requires a comprehensive understanding of 1) the magnitude of the end user’s unique security needs/desires; 2) the size of the end user’s budget; 3) the environment in which the technologies will be used; 4) what technologies the customer is already using; and 5) which specific biometric technology best addresses the end user’s unique needs within the available budget.

Security Hot Spots Are Biometrics Candidates

First, different types of businesses require different levels of security. Biometrics has been particularly popular as a physical access strategy with data centers and network co-location facilities.

In such environments, mission-critical networking equipment and data storage devices are stored centrally, creating a localized security hot spot. Access is tightly restricted, so throughput is not a critical issue, and these companies have robust budgets to accommodate security.

In contrast, most enterprise or campus environments have to provide access to a large number of people, all with varying levels of access privileges. In this situation, throughput, convenience and transparency are priority issues.

Proximity card access currently offers the best method of addressing these issues and also provides the basis for the photo identification requirement most organizations have. The best practice here would be to harden security as traffic approaches the organization’s hot spots with the use of biometric readers.

Costs Coming Down, But Still Outpace Cards

Second, biometric technology suppliers have made radical improvements in the costs of their products. However, biometric technology is still substantially more expensive to purchase than most card technologies. So, while end users may express interest in deploying biometrics in their facilities, corporate budgets will often determine whether or not that will actually happen.

Indoor Applications Suit Technology Best

Third, current biometric product design necessitates that units are deployed indoors, as most have not been designed for prolonged exposure to outdoor conditions or vandalism. The amount and kind of traffic may also affect the selection of biometrics or cards. For instance, in parking structure applications or near main entrances, wireless card technologies, like proximity, are more convenient than biometrics.

Integration Into Existing Systems Is AttractiveFourth, end users will be more inclined to buy into the biometric value proposition if they can leverage rather than replace their current systems. This leveraging can be accomplished in a number of ways. A pure biometric system would function almost exactly like a card access system, but require significantly more processing power because of the complexity of biometric data.

There are a few ways to use a customer’s existing card-based system to solve this problem. One way is to associate each individual cardholder number with that person’s biometric template. The cardholder number would then direct the biometric system where to look on the template database for the individual’s stored template, greatly reducing the amount of processing required to verify the authenticity of the biometric scan.

Another way to simplify processing is to store the biometric template on a smart card, eliminating the need for a separate biometric template database and the infrastructure needed to support it. Still another way to get around the processing problem is to store the biometric template on the controller panel.

Finger, Hand, Eye Scan Methods Are Best

Finally, after settling these issues, you still have to determine which kind of biometric technology best matches your customer’s situation.

The three technologies that I believe to be the most practical currently are finger scan, hand scan (or hand geometry) and eye scan (either retina or iris). These technologies usually offer the user the ability to adjust sensitivity, or tolerance, levels to balance false accept and false reject rates.

Eye scan technology is probably the most accurate technology of the group, but it is also the most expensive and perceived to be the most intrusive. Finger scan technology offers a good balance between accuracy and cost. Given the current state of development among the various biometric technology alternatives, hand scan, also known as hand geometry, is our preferred choice for combining accuracy (up to 90 unique features or measurements) and cost with a minimal perceived amount of intrusion.

Successful Systems Require Solid Training

Once the decision has been made about where biometric technology will be used in your customer’s organization, which kind of technology will be used and how it will be integrated with existing systems, the final step is to train customer security personnel. Not only will they need to know how to adjust the tolerance of the readers to balance false accept and false reject rates, they also will need to know how to address employees’ concerns. Robert Sawyer has been president and CEO of Group 4 Securitas Technology Corp. in Torrance, Calif., since 1996. He may be reached at (310) 518-2380, ext. 1613, or at

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