The Eyes Have It

Concerned about security, companies may soon rely on a wide range of biometrics. Turns out you're even more special than you thought.
Russ BanhamOctober 15, 2002

In the movie Minority Report, an Orwellian tale set in the mid­-21st century, lasers routinely pick up people’s identity by scanning their eyes as they walk down a mall corridor. On the run from the law, special agent John Anderton escapes detection by swapping his baby blues for somebody else’s brown eyes. He does, however, keep his old peepers handy in a Ziploc bag — just in case he needs to enter secure locations.

Far-fetched? Maybe. But experts say biometric technologies, in which high-tech devices are used to identify unique human characteristics, are no longer the stuff of science fiction.

Indeed, devices already exist that identify individuals by fingerprints, faces, voices, and, yes, even irises. Biometrics can identify people by more unusual human characteristics as well — things like ear patterns, gaits, and even body odors.

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And make no mistake: in this era of heightened corporate security, Big Brother is big business. According to the International Biometric Industry Association, the biometrics market will jump from its year 2000 mark of $165 million a year 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 an increasingly important role in not only public security but also the corporate realm.

Fingerprint identification remains the mainstay of the biometrics industry, representing well over half of the total commercial biometrics market. But since no biometric technology is foolproof, security experts recommend combining several technologies to pinpoint potential threats.

According to industry watchers, this need for triangulation is fueling interest in less-conventional biometric technologies. The fact that these experts even use the phrase “less-conventional biometric technology” speaks volumes about the fact that biometrics has come on fast enough for there to be “conventional” approaches. What follows is a guide to some emerging forms of biometric identification.

Facial Recognition

Like fingerprints, no two faces are alike. But facial recognition biometrics fall short when compared with fingerprints — mismatches are common despite recent technological advances. Still, this particular biometric technology can prove a useful barometer of who a person might be, which can then be verified via other biometrics.

How It Works. A person’s face is photographed, scanned, and assessed by software that measures dozens of features — the distance from the bottom of the nose to the top of the upper lip, the angle of the head, and so on. These measurements are then encoded, digitalized, and stored in a database for comparison purposes. A single puss can be compared against millions of other faces in seconds.

At Super Bowl XXXVI, for instance, many unsuspecting fans were furious when they learned their faces had been scanned and compared with crude mug shots of known criminals. With terrorism still a real threat in the United States, the National Park Service operates a face-recognition surveillance system that snaps pictures of visitors who board ferries to the Statue of Liberty.

On Tap. Face-scanning software at ATMs eventually replacing personal identification numbers.

Iris Scanning

So you thought fingerprints were the most unique facet of the human body? Guess again. No current biometric technique is more accurate than iris scanning.

How It Works. Complex patterns in the iris (the colored portion of the eye) make ridges on fingerprints look like stick-figure drawings. The statistical false-rejection rate for iris-recognition systems is zero percent, compared with 3 percent for fingerprint-recognition systems.

To date, few corporations have bought into iris-recognition technology. Why? Cost. Iris-scanning systems are almost twice as expensive as comparable fingerprint systems. Moreover, they’re intrusive, requiring users to stare into a camera lens for several seconds to win recognition. The U.S. government has conducted experiments with iris-recognition systems in extremely secure environments, where the trade-off of accuracy is worth the intrusiveness.

On Tap. The first major commercial venture is already under way: Two U.K. airlines, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, recently announced a joint five-month trial of a “self-service” iris-recognition system at London’s 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.

Gait Recognition

On some level, we all walk the walk — the walk that is uniquely ours.

How It Works. Each of us can be measured by the “spatial motion” we create as we walk. Think in terms of flow image; that is, the changing measurements between body parts as you move through each phase of your stride.

On Tap. Scientists are only beginning to discern the unique differences in the ways we walk, but the uses are obvious. A suspected hijacker enters an airport and is picked up by a facial-recognition system. But since these systems are not foolproof, and other biometric technologies are impossible to deploy without detection, the person’s gait is captured on camera to further aid identification.

Ear-Pattern Recognition

Auricle images are the newest frontier in facial-recognition strategies.

How It Works. Each person has an outer ear pattern that is every bit as unique as Ross Perot’s. Scanning and measuring the geometry of the outer ear is akin to the process used in iris recognition, but has more creative utility. Instead of authenticating a caller through voice recognition, a reader device on the phone receiver would unobtrusively capture ear shape and pattern to discern identity.

On Tap. No commercial development yet, but potential applications abound for corporate security.

Smell Recognition

Pheromones aside, people apparently give off odors that are unique.

How It Works. While the idea of authenticating someone’s identity based on personal odor seems both far-fetched and possibly unsavory, scientists at Caltech think otherwise. They’re hard at work developing chemically sensitive conducting polymer films that will capture a person’s…emanations. “Gaseous vapors,” these scientists say, could be absorbed by an “electronic nose” device to yield an ID.

On Tap. Thankfully, commercial applications are years away.

Russ Banham is a Seattle-based journalist.

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