Public awareness, national security build case for biometrics

While the government sector has taken the lead on biometric use, the public sector has been a slower adopter
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Saturday, February 1, 2003

With public acceptance of biometric-related identification on the rise, and legislative attention focused on national security, players in the biometric security industry say the time is right for these systems to gain their rightful place as both logical and physical security devices.

A survey commissioned by SEARCH, The National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, a non-profit organization and funded by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, shows consumer are increasingly willing to allow biometrics - which involves capture of and access to data related to fingerprints, hand geometry, iris, retina and facial scans, or voice recognition - to be part of identification systems. According to the survey report, written by survey developer and publisher Alan Westin of Privacy & American Business, it found “public support for biometrics hinges on the privacy safeguards set in place by legislators and adopted voluntarily by companies…to protect consumers from potential misuse of their biometric identifiers.”

The report noted that although consumer experience with biometrics is relatively low, they would accept it in varying degrees depending on its usage. Verifying identity related to credit card purchases, for example, received an 85 percent acceptance rate, while its use for accessing sensitive medical or financial records rated a 76 percent approval level. But survey participants made it clear (86 percent) that being informed about the use and need for biometric identification was also critical.

Trevor Prout, director of marketing for the International Biometric Group in New York, pointed to several key pieces of national security-related legislation - the USA Patriot Act, the Border Security & Visa Entry Reform Act, and the Homeland Security Act of 2002 - for helping to create an interest in and acceptance of biometrics.

“I think we will see this year that some government spending (related to biometric systems) will really happen,” said Prout. “We’re seeing more biometric deployment for networks and buildings,” he added.

Prout noted the government, based on national security initiatives, has taken the lead and, as a result, “the private sector is lagging behind somewhat.” But large companies are looking into biometrics, he said, if not buying the systems out right.

Dale Duda, a Dallas-based senior consultant for Sandra Jones & Co., concurred that because of Homeland Security issues, “everyone will be looking at it.”

However, he said, “there has been lots of discussion and lots of ideas, but no big dollars (spent) yet.”

Even though the technology has been around for a while, Duda added, the mindset of the end user and security people has to change for biometrics to become a more common technology.

“I would have thought it would be more widespread by now,” Duda said.

As a result of the generally slower adoption rate, he said companies that have been in the field or are getting into it need to be financially prepared. “You have to have good management and (access to) venture capital until the time comes,” he said.

Prout said several factors are influencing the rate at which biometrics takes off. “Large organizations want to see that these technologies are proven,” he said. “They don’t want to be the early adopters.”

And many companies don’t have a lot of expertise in the area. While some large systems integrators are working with biometric companies, Prout said, not everyone has gotten on the bandwagon.

Furthermore, he said, “the myths have not helped adoption.” These run the gamut from misconceptions about how the personal data is being used and with whom it is shared, to erroneous beliefs about physical problems from having your face or eye scanned, to the myths about the spread of disease from hand or fingerprint readers.

Another problem, Prout said, “are vendors who make very bold claims about accuracy and create skepticism” about the technology.

Because of all these potential roadblocks, Prout acknowledged “not a lot of companies are turning a profit with biometrics today.” Going forward, he said, the industry “will look different” with mergers and acquisitions “washing some small companies out of the landscape altogether.”

The most successful, Prout said, “are companies with deep pockets who are doing biometrics as one piece of the (security-related) things that they do.”

Jim Miller, chairman and chief executive officer of ImageWare Systems, which is working on the integration of biometrics with smart card technology, agreed consolidation will occur in the biometric industry, likely driven by the fact that companies will want to offer multiple options to end users.

“People realize not everyone will agree on one biometric,” he said. Therefore, he said, if they don’t have multiple options, they may miss out on a project. “But if they offer multiple biometric (systems) they can participate better.”

Miller added that while high-end companies have tapped into high-priced biometrics, the mid-size user “is the biggest part of the market, and I’ll be interested to see how they react.”

“Our challenge,” he added, “is allowing customers to build these (systems) at a cost-effective price.”

For integrators, such as Scott Sutton, owner and founder of Colorado-based Vizer Group, the success of biometrics hinges on education as well as price.

Sutton acknowledges there have been misconceptions both of the ease of operation of biometric systems and the price of the technology. “We still see some resistance on pricing,” he said, although local ads that feature the starting prices for fingerprint-related technology has helped with that.

Among those who are showing an interest in biometric security, Sutton said the driving forces are “the cool factor - there’s always a group of people who want the coolest thing”; and those who have educated themselves on the technology.

Sutton said he would like to see more manufacturers of biometric systems working toward educating the end user, rather than leaving that job to the integrator. “Manufacturers have to realize if they want to be successful, they have to partner with the integrators to advertise to the end user.”

He said confusion on the part of end users has slowed adoption. While early forms of biometric systems may have had less-than-stellar track records, Sutton said companies have come a long way and should let that be known. “They don’t promote (a technology’s) proven characteristics,” he said.

Sutton concurred with Prout that mergers and acquisitions are likely in this market unless manufacturers figure out how to better reach the end user. “If the technology doesn’t take off in a big way,” he said, “companies will go away or be purchased.”

He said integrators have seen government facilities, such as airports, moving forward with biometric security, “but most people are waiting for the next big (terrorism-related) event” before they act.

Joe Ganzi, president of SecureTech Solutions, a biometric products integrator based in Florida, said he believes biometrics will gain acceptance in the long run because of the “nearly irrefutable” uniqueness tied to the biometric identifier. PINs can be shared and passwords stolen, he said, “but with biometrics, it’s impossible.”