Technology

The keyless society

New security devices scan fingerprints, eyes, even body odors

VINCE BEISER August 25 1997
Technology

The keyless society

New security devices scan fingerprints, eyes, even body odors

VINCE BEISER August 25 1997

The keyless society

Technology

New security devices scan fingerprints, eyes, even body odors

Students who want to enter the University of Montreal's CEPSUM Athletic Complex need more than a conventional ID card—their identities must be authenticated by an electronic hand-scanner. In some posh California housing estates, a key alone is insufficient to get someone in the door; his or her voiceprint must also be verified. And soon, customers at some Japanese banks will have to present their irises for scanning before they can withdraw their yen from ATM machines.

All of these are applications of biometrics, a little-known but fast-growing technology that involves the use of physical or biological characteristics to identify individuals. In use for more than a decade at some high-security government institutions in the United States and Canada, biometrics are now rapidly popping up in the everyday world. Already, more than 10,000 facilities, from prisons to day care centres to a Los Angeles sperm bank, monitor people’s fingerprints, retinas or other physical parts to ensure that they are who they claim to be. Some 60 biometric companies around the world pulled in at least $22 million last year, according to Erik Bowman, an analyst with CardTech/SecureTech, a company that runs trade shows. Bowman expects that figure to mushroom to at least $50 million by 1999.

Biometric security systems work by stor-

ing a digitized record of some unique human feature. When an authorized user wishes to enter or use the facility, the system scans that person’s corresponding characteristics and attempts to match them against those on record. Systems using fingerprints, hands, voices, irises, retinas and faces are already on the market. Others using typing patterns and even body odors are in various stages of development.

Fingerprint scanners are currently the most widely deployed type of biometric application, thanks to their growing use over the last 20 years by law-enforcement agencies.

(Bowman’s figures exclude the expensive, highly specialized systems used by police.) Sixteen U.S. states now use biometric fingerprint verification systems to foil would-be welfare scammers. In June, municipal politicians in Metro Toronto voted to do the same, with a pilot project beginning next year.

A fingerprint-scanning system developed by Toronto-based Mytec Technologies Inc., one of Canada’s handful of biometric companies, is already in use at RCMP headquarters in Ottawa and at the Louvre museum in Paris. Another Canadian firm, American Biometric Co. of Ottawa, has developed a $399 fingerprint scanner, the Biomouse, that

can be used to stop unauthorized users from accessing a computer as well as to to protect data transmissions over the Internet.

To date, the most widely used commercial biometric system is the Handkey, which reads the unique shape, size and irregularities of people’s hands. Originally developed for nuclear power plants by Recognition Systems Inc. of Campbell, Calif., the Handkey received its big break last year, when it was used to control access to the Olympic Village in Atlanta by more than 65,000 athletes, trainers and support staff. ‘That showed the world that biometrics work,” says Bill Spence, RSI’s vice-president of sales and marketing. Among scores of other applications, the Handkey has been installed in airports in Toronto, New York City and other centres so that frequent travellers can present their hands instead of passports while clearing immigration.

Around the world, the market is growing rapidly. Malaysia plans to equip all of its airports with biometric face-scanners to match passengers with luggage. And Japan’s largest maker of ATM machines is developing new cash dispensers that incorporate iris scanners.

The first commercial biometric, a handreader used by a Wall Street firm to monitor employee attendance, was introduced in 1974. But only in the past few years has the technology improved and prices dropped sufficiently to make them commercially viable. “When we started four years ago, I had to explain to everyone what a biometric is,” says Keith Clemons, Mytec’s vice-president for marketing. “Now, there’s much more awareness out there.”

Not surprisingly, biometrics also raise thorny questions about privacy and the potential for abuse. David Banisar, a policy analyst for the Electronic Privacy Information Centre in Washington, worries that governments and industry will be tempted to use the technology to monitor individual behavior. “If someone used your fingerprints to match your health-insurance records with a credit-card record showing you regularly bought lots of cigarettes and fatty foods,” says Banisar, “you would see your insurance payments go through the roof.” In Toronto, meanwhile, critics of the welfare fingerprinting plan complained that it would stigmatize recipients by forcing them to submit to a procedure widely identified with criminals.

Nonetheless, biometrics boosters carried the day in Toronto—as they are doing in many other communities. As Bowman puts it: “People will get used to biometrics.” In an increasingly crowded and complicated world, biometrics may well be a technology whose time has come.

VINCE BEISER in San Francisco