When in Rome ?

Biometrics face down issues of cultural preferences

For Claudio Casuccio, director of General Dynamics Corp.'s business development unit in Rome, posing for an ID card photograph is not worrisome. But ask him to offer his finger or palm for a biometric vein scan, and he isn't as accommodating.

"That's looking inside your body," Casuccio said. "It is very invasive, in my opinion."

Casuccio's view underscores the cultural differences that can arise as companies take their biometric solutions around the globe.

In Japan, for instance, internal vein pattern scans of fingers and palms are becoming popular for identity management. Electronics giants Fujitsu Ltd. and Hitachi Ltd. are promoting the technology.

On May 11, the University of Tokyo Hospital announced it was the first major hospital to adopt Fujitsu's palm-vein authentication technology for its ID cards and to discard its fingerprint-based system.

Advocates of vein scanning said it avoids the perceived law enforcement stigma of fingerprinting and is highly accurate and resistant to tampering. But the technology has yet to proliferate beyond Japan.

Many governments around the world are using smart cards with embedded biometrics as IDs for homeland security and other purposes. In the United States, smart-card computer chips typically contain fingerprints and facial photographs.
Several countries are testing an array of newer biometrics, including those based on patterns in irises, retinas, veins in fingers and palms, hand geometry, 3-D facial images, voice, gait, odor and ear shape.

The United Arab Emirates uses iris recognition for a large-scale ID program for foreign workers. Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel applies hand geometry to identify trusted travelers.

Fistfuls of dollars

Billions of dollars are at stake in the biometric marketplace: Revenue is expected to more than double to $5.7 billion by 2010 from $2.1 billion this year, according to New York consultancy International Biometric Group Inc.

"The United States is not as advanced [as other areas of the world] in the large-scale implementations of ID management solutions," said Jim Ganthier, director of defense, intelligence and public security solutions for Hewlett-Packard Co. Many European and Asian countries "have been doing this for quite a while," he said.

Several U.S. biometric projects are rolling out soon. Nearly 10 million federal employees will get biometric ID cards under Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12. Another 10 million workers will get the federal Transportation Workers Identification Credential. And starting in October, all new passports will include a chip with fingerprints and a digital photograph.

Fingerprint technologies account for about 44 percent of the global biometrics market, followed by facial recognition at 19 percent, according to IBG research.
Some biometrics require near-perfect accuracy and need controlled conditions, while others put a premium on speed and convenience. Some signs point to layering different biometrics on a single card.

"Different applications require different modalities," said Arun Ross, assistant professor of the Center for ID Technology Research at West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va. "For cell phones, you might want to use voice recognition. For identification at a distance, gait and face recognition." For multiple uses, he said, "the trend is toward multiple-module biometrics."

Fingers are first

Of all the biometric technologies used widely today, the most popular is the fingerprint scan, said Al Vrancart, industry adviser for Princeton, N.J., trade group International Card Manufacturers Association.

"Fingerprint biometrics are accurate, inexpensive and adaptable for one-time or multiple usage," he said.

Globally, facial images also are widely accepted, especially for verifying an identity from among a limited number of enrolled participants, known as one-to-one matching. But there are issues of interoperability and long processing times, as well as accuracy of one-to-many matching systems, such as for a system designed to identify a terrorist's face in a crowd, said Victor Lee, an IBG consultant.

Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Tampa, Fla., tested a facial recognition system for a year, but scrapped it because the system delivered too many false positives. Facial biometrics have improved since then, but still are not as accurate as fingerprints and irises, Lee said.

On the other hand, although "facial recognition is not the most accurate, people are comfortable with it," he said. "In Europe, faces are the central biometric for a lot of identification cards."

Three-dimensional facial imaging, while it takes much more processing power and is more expensive, is being touted as highly accurate and less susceptible to tampering. It measures immovable planes and points on a face and cannot be tricked by, for instance, wearing a moustache or artificial scar.

But posing for a 3-D facial scan may be problematic.

"The idea of having to put one's face to a screen is simply off-putting to many, suggestive of a Big Brother intrusiveness," ICMA's Vrancart said.

Another alternative is iris recognition, which is considered extremely accurate because irises are unique and unalterable. The global iris recognition market is about $250 million.

The Homeland Security Department recently restored optional iris scans to its nationwide rollout of Registered Traveler. That was good news for Walter Hamilton, chairman of Washington trade group International Biometric Industry Association.
"Iris scans are very effective," he said. "The technology will continue to gain a foothold."

Still, there may be resistance. "Some people are reluctant about the idea of putting their face or their eyes close to a camera," said Randy Vanderhoof, president of industry trade group Smart Card Alliance Inc., Princeton Junction, N.J.

While conceding the technology's limitations, GDC's Casuccio also reiterated that using iris scans is fine for some high-security environments. It's a balancing act between security and privacy, he said.

In Rome, people are very concerned about privacy, "but they also see benefits from knowing who is coming and going," he said. Overall, though, "for biometrics, the less intrusive is better."

Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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