March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 10.04

Surrender the Pink

“Welcome to Voice Print Identification.” The silky computer voice that sounded like a cocktail hostess circa 1968 ushered in a new era of thinking about biometric authentication.
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By Arielle Emmett




“Welcome to Voice Print Identification.”
The silky computer voice that sounded like a cocktail hostess circa 1968 ushered in a new era of thinking about biometric authentication. The scene was 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction film depicting the power of computers and biometric systems to manifest the best and worst in human behavior.

In one story sequence, scientists repeat their names to a congenial computer security system that verifies their voiceprints against a database. Later, the master computer, HAL 9000, reads lips, recognizing the unique “biometric signatures” of two characters talking—and plotting against it—inside a sealed, acoustically silent space pod.
Today, digitized voiceprints are a reality. They are among an expanding arsenal of biometric technologies recording unique images and data generated by parts of the human body, such as irises, retinas, vocal cords, fingers, hands, faces and hearts. Biometrics’ primary purpose is to authenticate or reject an individual’s claimed identity. When combined with wireless technologies, biometric systems—already popular internationally, but only beginning to emerge in the United States—can now pinpoint the whereabouts of errant flocks of sheep, detect and transmit dangerous heartbeat anomalies, beef-up police surveillance and authenticate cell phone users’ voiceprints during over-the-air m-commerce transactions.

“Over the last two years, the mindset and acceptance level of biometrics has changed,” says Jim Burke, VP of communications for AuthenTec of Melbourne, Fla., a fingerprint authentication company that produces tiny biometric sensors for fingerprint scanning now available in laptops and mobile devices.

“Fingerprint sensors have dropped in size from about the size of a silver dollar to the size of the lead in a lead pencil,” Burke says. “Downsizing has made it much more practical to embed biometrics in a wireless device.” In addition, says Burke, “costs are dropping. For example, fingerprint sensors have come down from $40 a sensor to $6 a piece.” Iris scans—digital images that capture and encrypt the unique colored portion of the eye—can now be performed with tiny, standardized VGA cameras, producing templates of less than 700 kb. “Traditional computer or mobile suppliers are looking to differentiate their products,” Burke says. “Biometrics is one way of doing that.”

Both private industry and governments have pushed for biometric advances since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Government demonstration projects and mandates such as the controversial Patriot Act and the Enhanced Border and Visa Security Act aim to tighten security and boost authentication measures with biometry. For example:
•The Department of Homeland Security recently awarded a $10 billion contract to a consortium including Raytheon, AT&T, Accenture and Dell to produce biometric systems for the US-VISIT program, a security system for tracking the biometric information of the 24 million visitors to U.S. ports. The program will utilize technologies such as digitally scanned fingerprints.
•U.S. legislation has mandated that the 27 countries under the visa waiver program integrate an acceptable form of biometric information into their citizens’ passports to enable them to maintain the “waived” visa status when entering the United States.
•Fingerprinting and photo equipment have been installed at 115 U.S. airports and 14 seaports to verify passenger identities. The equipment allows inspectors to check the identities of visitors against those on terror watch lists.
•Boston’s Logan International Airport has initiated a six-month trial of biometric smartcards for frequent flyers. Under the U.S. Transportation Security Administration program, passengers who fly American Airlines at least once a week can voluntarily provide a digital fingerprint and eye scan along with essential contact information. Once their identities are screened for security risks, these passengers will be issued smartcards containing their biometrics. At inspection checkpoints, they insert the cards into machines that will confirm their identities by comparing their scanned fingerprints and irises to those encoded on the cards. Presumably, this will allow the biometric passengers to speed through security and proceed directly to metal detectors while their luggage is being X-rayed.
•Police departments are using biometric identification systems to perform identity checks in the field. For example, the Ontario, Calif., police department uses Identix IBIS: Integrated Biometric Identification System, which captures digital fingerprints and facial images on wireless handheld devices and then transmits them to a central site server for validation against multiple forensic databases.
•The U.S. Department of Transportation (US-DOT), in conjunction with Qualcomm, Savi Technology and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, among others, has been testing a new system of biometric authentication for transportation workers, especially truck drivers involved with hazardous materials (HAZMATS). Using a combination of biometrics, smartcards, GPS, wireless trailer tracking, panic buttons and intelligent on-board computers with vehicle-disabling capabilities, the multimillion-dollar trial “will improve the security, safety and efficiency of HAZMAT operations,” says Marc Sands, a VP of the division council at Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions. The experiment could also result in ubiquitous tracking of HAZMAT transportation workers and issuance of biometric identity cards. The DOT is expected to announce results of the tests shortly.

The international community is also adopting advanced biometrics. For example, the United Arab Emirates now uses iris-scanning technology to authenticate the visa status of foreign employees who may be listed on an “Iris Expellee Database,” according to Tarvinder Sembhi, director of product management and business development at Iridian Technologies in Moorestown, N.J., which provides the UAE with its iris-scanning equipment and software.

“When workers’ visas expire or immigrants commit crimes, sometimes they come back into the country with real government documents but under a different name,” Sembhi explains. Iris scans are extremely accurate and unique to each individual. One scan can identify an expellee among thousands of legitimate foreign workers.

Mobile Biometrics Expand

The growth of mobile biometrics in the commercial and enterprise arena is just taking hold in the United States. “We’re starting to see applications of technology for mobile device access,” says Joseph Kim, senior consultant at International Biometric Group, a private research, consulting and integration firm based in New York. In 2003, according to International Biometric Group figures, biometric revenues worldwide totaled a comparatively paltry $719 million. By 2008, the biometrics industry could grow to about $4.6 billion, Kim says. Biometrics will get a boost from a terror-conscious world and one that travels and does business quickly.

For example, NTT DoCoMo of Japan is integrating AuthenTec’s TruPrint digital fingerprint sensing systems in its wireless handsets and PDAs. “The platforms have become so smart that they need to be
protected,” says Art Stewart, a director of market development at AuthenTec. “In the cellular space, phones are evolving into a ‘complete electronic wallet,’ as NTT DoCoMo calls it, and people aren’t carrying around their real wallets anymore.” When phones contain family pictures, business contact lists and users perform monetary transactions or manipulate a bank account over the air, “the need for security becomes compelling.”

Fujitsu is among the computer vendors incorporating fingerprint recognition in its Lifebook P7000 series of notebook computers. The notebook contains an optional fingerprint sensor that lets a user swipe a finger (or more than one finger) in lieu of managing multiple passwords for access—an average of 20 passwords per computer user, according to Fujitsu. “Fingerprint sensing technology is very inexpensive to implement now and the size of the scanner and electronics is actually very small and compact,” says Tom Bernhard, director of strategic product planning for Fujitsu Computer Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif. “It’s cheaper to implement a fingerprint recognition system than to go out and reimplement a password—and people forget them, anyway.”

Which Technology is Practical?

Fingerprint sensing is often deemed the most “practical” biometric option for mobile devices because of cost and accuracy, although digital standards for fingerprint technologies are not universally accepted and so are largely incompatible. While voiceprints can also be used for wireless authentication, “the technology performs best with little background noise. Thus, there can still be gaps in performance in real-world settings,” says International Biometric Group’s Kim.
Biometric technologies have thresholds that can be adjusted to provide extremely secure locks on mobile systems. If the thresholds are set high, however, there is a danger of false rejections, frustrating authentic users. If the thresholds are set too low, false acceptances become more common. Still, fingerprint scanning is versatile. Fingers can provide the security lock on an entire laptop or access to specific applications or operating systems (e.g., a pinky for Microsoft Windows XP, a thumb for Comcast High-Speed Internet). Fujitsu, Motorola, IBM and Samsung are already building fingerprint sensor options into their mobile wireless phones, tablets and laptops, some of which have sensors built into a mouse. Silex, a Japanese company, produces PCMCIA “pop in, pop out” fingerprint sensors for laptops as well as USB-enabled fingerprint sensors with smartcards. The entry cost for the card and log-in Silex software is $199. Additional layers of encryption software are available.
As biometrics drop in price and size, it seems only logical that they will grow in popularity. Qualcomm, in particular, is providing next-generation chipsets, the MSM 7000 series, which will move CDMA phones from voice appliances to handheld personal computers accommodating myriad applications, including biometrics. According to Paul Hedtke, senior director of business development for Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions, “digital signal processors embedded in these chips can do a lot of mathematics to correlate a stored fingerprint or some other biometric measurement. It will be possible, then, to do a retinal scan or monitor a heart rhythm.”

Hospital facilities will be a big market for mobile biometrics in the near future. “A lot of hospital facilities are beginning to deploy iris recognition to enable medical employees to access sensitive records and files according to [stipulations of] the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA),” says Iridian Technologies’ Sembhi. “Right now they’re using iris recognition to access data on the workstation, but we believe hospitals will be converting to computers and PDAs on mobile carts.” He envisions tiny digital cameras that will be inserted in PDA slots to perform iris scan authentication, which his company is working on now.

“Hospital people won’t have to take off their latex gloves or face masks to get access to HIPAA files,” says Sembhi. “As camera technology gets cheap, you’ll see iris recognition follow that trend and be as ubiquitous as digital imaging technology. It’s a natural extension of what we’re doing today.” •

Arielle Emmett is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.
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