biometric hand

The Status Quo

Biometrics provides unique markers of each person on earth

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 identify criminals.

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 DNA analysis.

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 technologies.

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 and throughput.

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 game-changing paradigm.

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.

Looking Ahead

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 problem.

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.

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