3 new ways to authenticate

Make it easy, make it fast, do it right. Increased ease of use, high throughput, and heightened accuracy and security of data are three tenets of the booming biometrics industry, experts say. Those factors are pushing technological advances in biometric authentication devices, which scrutinize characteristics of the human body to prove that people are who they say they are.

We have found three new technologies that take biometrics in new directions -- and in one case, into computers.

1. Catching your eye

Until now, iris-recognition devices have required subjects to stop and face a reader that scans their eyes from a short distance.

Last month, Sarnoff unveiled a prototype system called Iris on the Move, which allows as many as 20 people a minute to walk through a portal at a normal pace without stopping, said James Matey, a senior member of Sarnoff's technical staff.

Subjects must open their eyes and look at their reflection 10 feet away in a mirror-like piece of black plastic "that looks like the monolith in [the film] '2010,'" Matey said.

As subjects walk through the portal, a strobed infrared light, invisible to the human eye, illuminates their eyes like a camera flash would. Four high-resolution cameras capture the image from as much as 10 feet away.

The scanner can read subjects' irises through most eyeglasses, sunglasses and contact lenses, he said. However, mirrored sunglasses and glasses with certain kinds of frames reflect the strobe light, so subjects must remove them, he said.

Iris on the Move overcomes three shortcomings of other iris-recognition technologies, Matey said. First, the light and cameras enlarge the area in which subjects can position their heads for the scanner to recognize their iris patterns. Second, it reduces the amount of time a subject must spend in that space, he said. And lastly, the system can also capture moving images.

Sarnoff officials said the company hopes to establish a commercial partnership in the next six to 12 months to distribute the technology.

Iris on the Move is appropriate for organizations that need to control access of large numbers of people who agree to have their identities checked in return for quick and secure access, Matey said. Federal facilities are an obvious potential market, as are airport trusted traveler programs, he said. The system is also ideal for employees at corporate office buildings and season ticket holders at amusement parks and sports stadiums, he said.

Iris on the Move is a significant development in iris-recognition technology, said John Siedlarz, chairman and chief executive officer of the National Biometric Security Project.

By increasing the distance and reducing the level of cooperation necessary to read an iris, the system makes one of the most powerful biometrics more available to low-security, high-volume applications, Siedlarz said. He said he thinks Sarnoff's next challenge will be making the system affordable for widespread deployment.

2. Want your palm read?

Along with iris recognition, fingerprints are the current gold standard of biometrics. Fujitsu introduced a twist on the popular fingerprint reader in June: a device that reads the pattern of veins in a person's palm.

Subjects hold one hand three or four inches over the sensor, which shines infrared light on the palm. The deoxidized hemoglobin in blood in the palm's veins absorbs the light and creates a unique pattern that officials can use to identify and authenticate people, said Joel Hagberg, vice president of marketing and business development at Fujitsu.

Palm veins are a better biometric standard than fingerprints or the veins on the back of hands because the palm lacks hair to block a scan and pigment to change color, Hagberg said. Palm vein patterns are harder to duplicate than fingerprints because the veins and blood are inside the body, he said. A person could create a latex copy of a fingerprint to fool a fingerprint scanner, he said, but could not make a latex palmprint to fool Fujitsu's device.

The technology is superior to fingerprint readers for another reason: The palm vein reader can tell whether the person presenting the palm is alive, which is a good guarantee of authenticity, he said.

Fujitsu has already sold more than 10,000 readers in Japan, and customers include four major banks, several university systems and a hospital system, Hagberg said. He said Japanese customers use the device, which is designed to work with other identification measures such as smart cards, to control access to electronic door lock systems and access confidential records.

Fujitsu expects to have units on store shelves in early 2006, Hagberg said. The company considers the federal government, and especially intelligence agencies, to be one of its largest potential customers, he said.

One of the strongest selling points of readers is that the palm images are difficult to spoof, Siedlarz said. But he said that Fujitsu's dataset of 140,000 palms from 70,000 people is not large enough to conclusively prove that palm-vein patterns are unique biometric identifiers, as irises and fingerprints are.

Both iris-recognition and palm vein technologies are contactless, which greatly enhances their ease of use, Siedlarz said.

Contactless technologies are also hygienic. Hygiene is a huge issue in Asia, where fears of influenza pandemics are rising, Hagberg said.

3. First you, now your computer

Biometrics for humans is common, but Phoenix Technologies has taken the idea one step further: creating a biometric style for computers and other hardware.

To fight spoofing, phishing and unauthorized physical access to their customers' networks, Phoenix has introduced new software that embeds a security system underneath the operating system to identify devices, not just users, said Shiva Mandalam, Phoenix's director of security products.

Phoenix writes the BIOS software that initially starts up most PCs and runs below their operating systems, Mandalam said. The BIOS is also the interface between the operating system and peripheral devices. Phoenix has built another program, TrustedCore, which uses data from the BIOS as an authentication tool.

For each device, TrustedCore notes unique identifiers that users can't duplicate or export, including its Media Access Control address, which manufacturers put on the device's network access card. The software then runs those criteria through an algorithm to create a hash, or code, for the machine. Stored on the device, the hash can be used for authentication.

TrustedCore then protects the hash by encrypting it with a 1,024-bit, Secure Hash Algorithm-1 cryptographic key, Mandalam said. Another Phoenix product, TrustConnector, works at the operating system level and decrypts the hash, which identifies the device for role-based access to the organization's network.

With TrustConnector and TrustedCore, organizations can require users to enter the networks only on their assigned machines, Mandalam said. When users log in to the network, administrators can tell whether they are using their assigned machine, he said.

The combination enables administrators to enforce a hardware policy and prevent machines that don't match a preset profile from entering networks, Mandalam said. TrustConnector can work without TrustedCore and use other criteria to enforce role-based access.

"Now you have role-based, conditional access for devices just like you have for users," Mandalam said.

Phoenix introduced TrustedCore in Japan in October 2004. One customer, a major car manufacturer, is using it to prevent industrial espionage, Mandalam said. The company is establishing a U.S. reseller now.

Phoenix's biometric device adds insight into the legitimacy of users and their identities, said Pete Lindstrom, research director at Spire Security. It could be useful, for example, with devices that access networks using embedded programs without users logging in, he said.

But Lindstrom said such a setup would be useful only in centrally managed information technology environments that can enforce static one-to-one device/user relationships, such as the high-end, intelligence-oriented federal market Phoenix is targeting.

Most IT environments involve people using multiple devices for many purposes, Lindstrom said. He worries that any changes to devices in that dynamic setting could limit or block a user's access to the network.

NEXT STORY: 3 new ways to authenticate

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