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9. Biometrics

With identity theft and terrorism now constant threats, corporations have begun to see the value of biometrics.
Marie Leone, | US
October 7, 2002

Brief: In this post 9/11 era of heightened corporate security, Big Brother is big business. According to the International Biometric Industry Association, the biometrics market will jump from $165 million a year in 2000 to $2.5 billion by the end of the decade. Even discounting the usual industry association fluff-factor, it's clear that biometrics will play a real — and increasingly important — role in the transacting of business.

What It Is: Simply put, biometrics ascertain identity by analyzing unique physical characteristics. Technologies already exist that identify individuals by fingerprints, faces, voices, and, yes, even irises. But biometric devices can ID people by more unusual human characteristics as well, including ear patterns, walking gaits and... well... body odors. When a high degree of accuracy is required, users often deploy several biometrics in tandem.

Skinny: Fingerprint identification remains the mainstay of the biometrics industry, representing well over half of the total commercial biometrics market. Currently, the U.S. government is the primary buyer of fingerprint biometrics. But experts say fingerprint technology will likely play a big part in electronic commerce. In coming years, computer keyboards, cell phones, and personal digital assistants will come equipped with fingerprint scanners and sensors.

Moreover, since no two ridge patterns are the same, some experts believe fingerprint scans will someday replace credit cards. A fingerprint would serve not only to identify a customer, but also would automatically link to a bank account or credit-card number. Such an application has tremendous potential for retail gas-station chains, as well as service providers like restaurants and hotels.

Iris scanning is probably the most accurate way to determine is someone is who they say they are. Amazingly, the statistical false-rejection rate for iris recognition systems is 0 percent, compared with 3 percent in fingerprint recognition systems.

To date, few corporations have bought into iris recognition technology. The reason? Such systems are pricey — almost twice the cost of a comparable fingerprint system. Moreover, they're a bit intrusive, requiring high compliance from users who must stare into a camera lens for a few seconds to allow recognition.

Nevertheless, the first major commercial venture into iris-identification is already underway. Two U.K. airlines, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, recently announced a joint five-month trial of a self-service iris recognition system at Heathrow Airport. Frequent international passengers can volunteer to have their irises scanned and entered into a database. Once the customers show up at customs, they simply look into a biometric reader that verifies their identities to U.K. immigration officials.

Experts point out that even oddball biometrics have their place in the commercial world. Even gait recognition, which relies on the changing measurements between body parts as a subject moves, has commercial potential — particularly when used in conjunction with other techniques. Scientists say cross-referencing two techniques brings the likelihood of an accurate assessment to 99.999 percent.

ETA: Five years.