Tech

BODY SCANNERS

Fingerprints, facial features, even the way you walk, could soon help you catch a plane or prove who you are

Kimberley Noble March 26 2001
Tech

BODY SCANNERS

Fingerprints, facial features, even the way you walk, could soon help you catch a plane or prove who you are

Kimberley Noble March 26 2001

BODY SCANNERS

Tech

Kimberley Noble

For Alex Briglio, the routine is familiar. Returning last week from a ski and snowboard show in Las Vegas, the vice-president of ROI Recreation Outfitters Inc. of Burnaby, B.C., entered the high-ceilinged immigration hall at Vancouver International Airport and turned away from the lines forming at a dozen booths. Stepping to a kiosk similar to a bank machine, Briglio inserted a card. Following prompts on a screen, he placed his right hand in a recess and aligned his fingers against five small pegs. Touching the screen to indicate he had nothing to declare, he received a paper slip confirming his entry into Canada. In less than a minute, he was on his way. It was the kind of experience that has made Briglio a big fan of the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency’s pilot Canpass automated-entry program for low-risk air travellers: “The biggest attraction is being able to get off the plane, put your card in and just go. It’s great.” Canada Customs hopes to introduce a service similar to the Vancouver pilot project by year-end at seven more airports,

including Toronto’s Pearson and Montreal’s Dorval. The expanded service may scan travellers’ eyes, instead of their hands, to confirm their identity. But whatever body part it traces, the technology is only the forerunner of a wave of new biometric devices designed to identify people by lines in their skin, the tone of their voice, the shape of their face—even the tempo of their typing. All use unique individual variations in physical features, or such recognizable behaviours as walking, talking and signing a name, to authenticate identity. Uses range from the humble—doing away with the inconvenience of remembering multiple online passwords—to the controversial—such as facial scans of the Super Bowl crowd by police. Other applications may soon provide some Canadians with the ultimate personal ID for dealing with everything from government to vending machines.

Plummeting computing costs and an explosive growth in digital transactions have fuelled the new push to bring biometrics to market. With as many as 100 companies pursuing

Fingerprints, facial features, even the way you walk, could soon help you catch a plane or prove who you are

various methods, a race is on among the leaders to win acceptance as de facto standards in the most valuable market niches. Any technology tapped by the airlines to identify travellers, for instance, stands to earn a share of global biometrics revenues that some analysts put at $4 billion within five years. And several Canadian companies are among the front-runners At the head of the pack is a small Vancouver firm with some big names in surveillance behind it. Former RCMP commissioner Norman Inkster and Reid Morden, an ex-director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, are advisers to Imagis Technologies Inc. in its development of face-recognition software. To experience it at work, you could drop in to any of Gateway Casinos’ three B.C. locations and try to cheat at one of its slots, roulette wheels or game tables. Display the giveaway “tells” the Burnaby-based chain’s security staff look for, and operators in a darkened room off the casino floor will train a discreetly placed video camera on your face. Using complex calculations based on the relationship of features around the nose and eyes, Imagis’s software will compare your face to those of more than 2,000 known or suspected cheats already on file, and report any match in under a second. “If you are going to compromise the integrity of the game,” says general manager Monique Wilberg, “we’re going to catch you.” The software guarding the one-armed bandits is actually a spin-off from Imagis’s primary market: law enforcement. RCMP detachments in North Vancouver and Surrey, B.C., were proving grounds for a computerized arrest and booking system that replaces binders of mug shots with a database of digital images. Given a new face, Imagis’s software can find any matches in seconds. In North Vancouver, it exposed one man who had previously been arrested three times under three different names. “It’s pretty amazing,” says detachment identification officer Sandy Ferris. “We have put in composite drawings and come up with a list of suspects.” The company has since sold the system to police forces in Ontario, Alberta, California and Mexico’s Chihuahua state.

Another Canadian company is betting on the biometrics of typing. Yukon-registered Net Nanny Software International Inc., which markets out of Bellevue, Wash., and does its R and D in Vancouver, recently released BioPassword, a program that works on office systems to provide security based on what the company says are unique “keystroke dynamics” of people’s typing. By analyzing the time between each keystroke and how long fingers dwell on each key, the software claims to be able to distinguish an impostor typing your name and password.

Toronto’s Mytec Technologies Inc. is in a crowded field of companies promoting fingerprint sensors as the basis for se-

curity devices for everything from cellphones to handguns, including a prototype Smith and Wesson electronic “smart gun” that has gained wide attention. But president Pierre Donaldson sees an even bigger market among computer, cellphone and luxury-car owners. “We’re in the business of replacing passwords and any type of key,” he says.

Basing identity on distinguishing physical features, of course, is as old as man. But computing power, and the ability to record minute physical details using non-invasive probes of laser light, have vasdy increased the number of features to measure. Technologies based on physical patterns in the eye, face, finger and hand are well proven. New approaches go beyond biology to measure unique patterns in how people move, especially in repetitive tasks. Holland’s LCI Technology Group NV claims to identify unique finger movements through a sensorequipped ballpoint pen. A University of Maryland study pre-

diets police will soon be able to pick any individual out of a crowd by his or her stride. British researchers claim to have detected personal calling patterns distinctive enough to know when a thief is using your phone instead of you.

And air travel is set to get easier. Computing giant Unisys and Air Canada are among players in talks with Canada Customs to expand the Canpass airport service as it moves east (the technology is also offered by U.S. immigration to preclear low-risk travellers at Canadian airports). In the grand vision, a single biometric-backed smart card (dubbed the ConciergeCard by Unisys) would be used for automated seat and baggage check-in on airlines and tasks like booking car rentals and hotels, as well as for clearing Canadian customs.

But the expanding reach and improving precision of biometrics leave some people queasy. Ontario Provincial Police and the province’s casinos roused controversy when they used face-recognition software to run pictures of casino patrons through police mug files (B.C.’s Gateway searches only its own database). Critics also blasted Tampa police for using similar software to scan the faces of fans at last January’s Super Bowl game.

To get his Canpass, Briglio willingly parted with his physical information. “I have no problem when the government runs it,” he says. But, the businessman admits, “I have a real problem when private industry would have your fingerprints. For banks to have them? I wouldn’t give it to them.” In fact, Dutch-owned ING Bank of Canada last year gave out more than 300 thumbprintreading biometric computer mouses to its customers as a testcum-promotion. But officials say most are no longer in use— abandoned in favour of conventional passwords. Biometrics may be fast establishing itself as a safe bet for cops and casinos. Whether it will find ready acceptance among consumers is more of a wild card. E3