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Biometrics: A Security Makeover

By Jack M. Germain
Sep 25, 2004 1:30 AM PT

One year ago, the prospects for developing biometrics as a reliable security device for computers were viewed by many industry watchers as a nice idea with little applicable potential. After all, biometric security devices have been available in one form or another for 30 years. But the use of biometrics for computer security and user authentication lacked much enthusiasm because of ill-placed perceptions that the procedures were costly, inconvenient and intrusive.

Biometrics: A Security Makeover

Secure log-on devices such as key stroke pattern recognition and fingerprint scanners were developed years ago. These devices were improved in recent years and were supplemented with voice recognition software, signature verification scanners and infrared iris scanners. Still, despite advances in technology, interest has been lacking. Adoption fell far short of mainstream acceptance.

However, that cycle of misperceptions and lack of interest is starting to change, according to officials in one company heavily pursuing 3D facial technology. A4Vision, like others in the biometrics industry, has benefited from venture capital (VC) to advance its wares. A successful seeding of investor support in an earlier round of VC funding provided a needed boost to lagging biometrics market activity. A second round of VC funding provided US$13 million more.

This capital investment underscores a new confidence in the potential for biometrics markets, in particular for 3D facial identification, company officials said.

The reliability of facial biometrics has been seriously questioned in the past. However, A4Vision has developed and marketed 3D facial biometrics technology that is drawing strong interest.

A New Horizon

2D security devices have been tried and found to be lacking. They were prone to giving inaccurate and ineffective results when a subject was in motion and as light varied. A4Vision says it has solved that problem with its 3D near-infrared cameras. The trick A4Vision brought to the research and development table is a technology and product line that accommodates variable light conditions and subjects in motion.

These new cameras "illuminate" subjects so they can be identified in total darkness or full daylight. The technology isn't affected by too much or too little light.

The same results occur with motion. A4Vision uses real-time streaming video. Motion actually contributes to identifying a subject.

According to company officials, A4Vision is the only enterprise today to actually have functioning 3D biometrics products. Frost & Sullivan, a technology consulting firm, named A4Vision's products the best biometrics products of 2004.

Face Recognition Put to Use

The Department of Defense is betting on the reliability of A4Vision's new face-recognition technology. It commissioned A4Vision to work with Unisys to develop 3D security devices for government/Homeland Security applications.

The first product developed under this contract is a mobile 3D facial scanner. The scanner is linked to databases to identify approved individuals for entry. The scanner is a powerful identification vehicle, important to many applications in military, border control and law enforcement.

According to company officials, investors see A4Vision's early success as just the first indicator of adoption across multiple industries globally. Such global programs are needed to implement national identity mechanisms.

The 3D technology could be used to meet HIPAA requirements in the medical industry, IT and Internet security demands for identity, civil markets demand for drivers license and frequent flier identification, and multiple consumer applications in automotive and retail point-of-sale.

Not Just a Pretty Face

"The biometrics industry is no longer in its infancy," Grant Evans, CEO of A4Vision, told TechNewsWorld. "Vast changes in the marketplace are the driving forces for biometrics."

These forces are creating new markets for other forms of biometrics as well. New generations of fingerprint and iris recognition software will provide more reliable solutions than earlier versions, he said.

He sees three critical factors impacting on the development of biometrics.

  • One, governments worldwide are mandating better security procedures.

  • Two, the U.S. government is already using face and fingerprint recognition for all immigrants.

  • Three, investors have started to free up funds for product development as they see the industry is getting more mature leadership.

    Perhaps the biggest push to advancing biometrics in computer security is coming from Microsoft. The computer software giant plans to include fingerprint support in its next huge operating system upgrade. "Putting this in Longhorn is a very, very big move," Evans said.

    Tip of the Iceberg

    According to Evans, people are starting to get real about biometrics in the world of security. From a product standpoint, biometrics will handle access-control systems. Law enforcement uses for biometrics holds perhaps the most enormous growth potential of any one field.

    "Biometrics is becoming a billion dollar market," Evans said. "The marketplace is now fueling biometric research."

    The biometrics industry is gearing up for an explosion of opportunity. As Evans describes the scene, the need for identification verification products is a worldwide necessity. To support that view, he offered these statistics:

  • 28 countries have mandated face reading security be in place by 2007

  • The United Kingdom is now testing for electronic passport visas that will be the basis of a national ID system.

  • 380,000 police cars and up to 900,000 law enforcement officials will carry these devices.

    Reliable Solution

    While Evans sings the praises of his "life-on-the-edge" industry, he also chants a cautionary note that biometrics is not the silver bullet for security.

    "Biometrics is a solid piece of technology when it is used appropriately," he told TechNewsWorld. "But it is not the Holy Grail."

    The reliability of biometrics is now established, Evans noted. People can use it effectively. It is a tool that is used in concert with other security tools, he said.


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    How do you feel about flying on a pilotless plane?
    No way -- if there's a screw-up, you can't just jump out.
    I'd do it -- flights are pretty much entirely automated anyway.
    I'm skeptical but open minded, especially if fares would be much less.
    I would try it if there were *someone* on board to take over in a pinch.
    It's the wave of the future -- I'm resigned to it.