The Status Quo
Biometrics provides unique markers of each person on earth
- By Hector Hoyos
- Mar 05, 2010
Ever since 9/11, the quest for the holy grail in
security has had to answer some tough questions.
How do we create a system that can
identify someone quickly, efficiently, accurately and
cost-effectively? Billions of dollars have been invested
in developing technologies, hardware and software
solutions to unearth this secret, and the single underlying
theme that has bound this quest together is
biometrics: the unique, individual markers that each
person carries with them every day.
Biometrics Throught the Years
The advent of biometrics-based security and its
use by law enforcement dates to the end of the 19th
century, when classification systems for fingerprints
were developed. Shortly thereafter, the New York
State Prison System began the first systematic use
of fingerprints in the United States to register and
The 1960s through 1980s saw the advent of automated
technologies in the biometric space lowering
the costs for fingerprints comparison and storage, facial
recognition, hand geometry and signature recognition
The term biometrics was first used in the 1980s to
describe methods of automated personal and human
identification. It also was during this period that the
first biometrics industry association was founded, although
it took nearly 20 years for the adoption of the
first biometrics standards (BioAPI) in 2002.
Using the unique identification properties of an
iris is a fairly recent trend in the biometric field;
first introduced in the 1990s by Dr. John Dougman
of Cambridge, iris recognition systems may prove
to be the most useful and potentially disruptive
The digital revolution of the last two decades promoted
all types of biometrics and ensuing products to
evolve onto automated computing platforms. It was
believed by many in the industry that with the advent
of the PC and all of its electronics miniaturization
and cost reductions, a new revolutionary wave of biometric
products would change the world by fulfilling
the promise of biometrics. This expectation has yet to
be fully realized.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Not all biometric devices are created equal. Whether
it is fingerprint, face or iris readers, there is a great
deal of functional disparity among them.
The common underlying factor has nothing to
do with technology, but rather human behavior. Not
everyone will place their finger exactly the same way
onto a sensor or look into a face camera system or
an iris reader in the same manner. Human beings and
their behaviors are all as unique as their personal biometric
features, and this factor has been largely left
out of the equation when designing and building all
these sensors and products that promised to change
the way we are identified.
Biometrics vendors have largely missed the target
when it comes to addressing the three most
critical benchmarks in determining if their products
are ready for primetime: ease of use, scalability
We are finally at the forefront of a new era of biometric
technology in which the promise can be realized.
Imagine life as envisioned by the 2002 movie
"Minority Report," in which Tom Cruise’s character
is identified by biometrics sensors as he runs through
a shopping mall and is offered personalized coupons.
That field in motion and at-a-distance iris acquisition
capabilities exists in our Hollywood technology.
However, in real life, customers are fed up with
the over promising and under delivering of technology,
a sales practice that has become the industry
norm. For example, iris readers have been around in
one form or another for about 15 years. Advertising
claims these sensors simply acquire your iris as you
look into them—but the reality is far from that. The
lackluster performance of previous generations of
biometric products has left little interest for the next
While biometrics presents a tremendous growth
opportunity, it is only a small piece of the larger identity
management industry. The aggregate revenue of
biometrics products in 2009 is expected to be slightly
more than $3 billion. Meanwhile, the aggregated revenue
of identity management was more than $6 billion.
Biometric products revenues are forecasted to grow to
$6 billion by 2014, while identity management is expected
to grow to $12.3 billion by the same year.
Part of the reason for such a disparity between
the aggregated revenues of biometrics versus identity
management is that the former represents sales mainly
of hardware and software products, while the latter
represents the sale of complete solutions, which command
much higher profit margins.
The question is whether biometrics offerings have
become commodities. There is no real inherent value
in a biometrics algorithm—regardless of how good
they are or what they do—or even of biometrics sensors
of any type. Their value is achieved as part of
an overall end-to-end solution that is solving a real-world
The holy grail of access control is biometrics for
the masses targeted at individual consumers. This nut
has yet to be cracked. Whoever gets there first will end
up owning the space, but the application must be user
friendly and effective.
The majority—if not all—of current offerings
in the biometrics field is created mainly for government
use. With commercial use at a distant second, it
is doubtful that biometrics for individual consumers
will be achieved any time soon. The technology certainly
exists today to deliver biometrics products that
are easy to use, scalable and capable of providing high
throughput. The industry, however, is still confused as
to what it is and what role it fulfills.
The promise of biometrics will be fulfilled once
vendors realize that what they have is of value—but
only as part of an overall end-to-end solution that addresses
and resolves real-world needs—and they move
to engineer those complete solutions. Otherwise, biometrics
innovators, products and vendors alike will
simply be relegated to the secondary role of just one
more commodity-type line-item widget in the inventory
of system integrators.
This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Security Today.