Agencies scan biometrics for potential applications
- By Gerald Lazar
- Jan 19, 1997
The concept of biometrics - linking a person's identity to a fingerprint or other physical feature that is digitized and stored on a computer - has been around for years but it has been associated most closely with law enforcement applications. That is changing. Although far from being in widespread use the technology has emerged as a security solution that more federal agencies are using or considering.
Biometrics has garnered so much attention because it offers a potentially foolproof means of verifying a person's identity - much more reliable than a photo ID or a signature. By scanning a fingerprint and checking it against a database an organization should be able to prevent individuals from misrepresenting themselves to gain unauthorized access to facilities information or certain benefits. Identity also may be checked using the hand face eye or voice.
"There are several levels of personal identification " said Walter Hamilton director of federal marketing for fingerprint imaging provider National Registry Inc. Reston Va. "Something a person knows something a person carries with them and something a person physically is. And that last is biometric identification." NRI makes desktop and keyboard scanners for protecting access to computer systems.
As computer technology has become more powerful and much less expensive biometric applications once beyond the financial reach of agencies outside the law enforcement community have become affordable and attractive.
For example security officials at last summer's Olympic Games in Atlanta restricted admission to sensitive locations using a biometrics computer system that measures the shape of people's hands. An Energy Department facility uses a retinal scan to verify the identity of employees.
"Using biometrics for identifying and authenticating human beings offers some unique advantages " according to Jeff Dunn chief of biometrics and protective systems for the National Security Agency. "Only biometric authentication bases an identification on an intrinsic part of a human being. Tokens - such as smart cards magnetic stripe cards physical keys and so forth - can be lost stolen duplicated or left at home. Passwords can be forgotten shared or observed."
Of course biometrics is still maturing and some questions remain about both the reliability of the technology and policies of when and how it should be used. But the promise of the technology has convinced many federal agencies to take a closer look.
Biometrics is a fairly simple concept that takes several forms each with its own pros cons and level of acceptance.
Of course the best-known biometric is fingerprints a measurement more than a century old. Fingerprints are as far as anyone knows completely unique to each individual. Thanks to relatively recent breakthroughs in computer technology even huge fingerprint databases can be compared in real time.
However fingerprint technology has some drawbacks said Jeffrey Ott program manager with the Financial Systems Division of Computer Data Systems Inc.'s Business Applications Solutions Co. "There's still the stigma of law enforcement with fingerprints. Many users find a negative response to being fingerprinted to access a door " he said.
Hand geometry on the other hand has no such stigma. "Hand geometry is not a hand scan it's a three-dimensional recording of the length of the fingers and placement of the fingers " Ott said. "It records the hand being entered into the device and records...the movement of the hand."
Technology also has been developed to use the eye as a biometric measure although with varying degrees of success.
Retinal scans shoot a low-intensity beam of light into the eyeball and record the formation of veins within the eye. That in and of itself can change during a person's life.
An individual's iris however is unique and does not change during a person's life. To measure the iris an individual looks into a device and a camera equipped with a low-wattage bulb takes a picture of the pattern on the iris in front of the eye. "Iris recognition is quick and accurate but it hasn't been tested sufficiently in the real world and we don't know how well it will work " said Peter Higgins principal consultant for the Washington D.C. consulting firm Higgins & Associates.
Facial recognition is another up-and-coming biometric application.
One application involves measuring facial features or the distance between features. Key measurements include the distance between pupils and the width of the mouth.
Facial recognition system vendor Miros Inc. relies on a neural network for its facial recognition technology. "It mimics the way the brain thinks " said Joan Dickinson vice president of business development for Miros Wellesley Mass. "It looks at a face and sees the color of the eyes where they're located the hair color and so on."
Theoretically facial recognition systems should identify individuals very accurately but in the real world picture quality isn't that high and reliability therefore is diminished.
However facial recognition applications "may be of interest as a secondary match" in conjunction with some other measure Ott said.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service is one agency watching facial recognition's development. Without detailing how INS might use such applications Ronald Collison the agency's associate commissioner for information resource management said the technology is "coming along very well."
Other biometric technologies have been developed as well but have not been widely used. Voice recognition as a biometrics application is different from the technology that lets a computer recognize what a person is saying. The biometrics system analyzes the pattern of the user's voice and compares it with a pattern on record. Such analysis is independent of the particular words being spoken.
DNA recognition is also on the frontier. "Theoretically in the future just having someone's hand you could lift a DNA sample and do an identification " INS' Collison said. "The legal system would never let you do that without cause of course and you'd have to find a good way of indexing."
Although the technology still is maturing and many biometric projects are still in the prototype phase some agencies have developed operational applications.
Patrick F. Smith director of the Commerce Department's Office of Computer Services has installed a hand geometry system designed by CDSI. Dubbed the Integrated Time and Accounting System the project has combined smart-card technology with a local-area network to form an application that increases security and improves the data center's accounting capabilities.
"When the order came down to consolidate I started letting others into my data center " Smith said. "That meant that the people [coming] in were not all my people and the previous security system - a [magnetic] stripe card - wasn't enough.... I had no idea who some of these people were."
Perhaps the widest variety of biometrics is being used at INS. "We probably have the greatest opportunity to utilize biometrics as we automate our different business processes " Collison said.
For instance INS is running a proof of concept for an automated port-of-entry that uses voice recognition and has a number of kiosks at three airports that use hand geometry. INS also uses fingerprints in a number of applications Collison said. "Our mission lends itself to the technology and the process."
More applications may be in the pipeline. A 1995 report by the General Accounting Office endorsed biometrics as a viable and effective method to fight fraud in the electronic disbursement of federal retirement and welfare benefits.
Although many in the public and private sectors are enthusiastic about biometrics the technology is far from a finished product.
"Biometrics face challenges similar to many new technologies " NSA's Dunn said. "There are few standards.... Most systems use a proprietary method to store and exchange data and this contributes to a lack of a common infrastructure."
Accuracy is of key importance Dunn said. "When discussing a biometric system it is often beneficial...at least to consider the false acceptance and false rejection rate together.... For many systems the threshold can be adjusted to ensure that virtually no impostors will be accepted. Unfortunately this often means an unreasonably high number of authorized users will be rejected " he said.
Also many biometrics such as fingerprints require powerful computer systems said Paul Kruelle vice president for information solutions at Unisys Federal Systems Division. "Fingerprints are so computer-intensive that until you could get hundreds of [million instructions per second on a desktop] it wasn't economical. Comparing one finger to another could take 5 [million] to 10 million operations."
Biometric designers invariably have to cope with end-user resistance. Fears of "Big Brother" - combined with intrusive measuring devices such as bright lights and ink pads - have had even technophiles dragging their feet on occasion. As the systems have become less intrusive however user resistance has dwindled but the suspicion is still there vendors said and agencies should not underestimate the importance of a user feeling comfortable with a technology.
Also as people age their bodies change. And almost every biometric except fingerprints and the shape of one's iris changes as well sometimes enough to make an old measurement useless. "What the good systems typically do is update every time you use the system it doesn't throw out old voices it adds the new one in and changes the average " Higgins said. "Of course if you only use the system once every two or three years you are going to have some problems."
The legal standing of biometric techniques is also a concern. Fingerprints are accepted as evidence and sometimes signatures as well but most other biometrics are not acknowledged by the courts as being unique.
"If fingerprints were just developed today there would be a lot more scrutiny " Higgins said.
Lazar is a free-lance writer based in Tenafly N.J.
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At A Glance
Status: Federal agencies are exploring potential security applications based upon several forms of biometric technology.
Issues: Beyond fingerprint scanning much of the technology has not been tested fully and agencies still must answer policy questions about how to deploy the new applications.
Outlook: Good though uncertain. While it still is an immature technology the potential benefits of biometrics as part of security systems will drive the market forward.