Show of hands

IR Recognition Systems' HandPunch, starting at $925, uses hand geometry for time and attendance tracking.

Precise Biometrics' 100 MC, priced at $189, combines a fingerprint sensor with a smart-card reader.

Iridian Technologies' PrivateID iris recognition software is used in hardware scan-ners for identification and access control.

Fingerprint, hand geometry systems lead in biometric recognition

Biometrics is the art and science of using a measurable and preferably unique biological characteristic to identify people.

There are two main ways to use biometrics.

The oldest and best known is for verifying the identity of known individuals. This also is the easiest, especially in agency environments, because users register their physical identifiers, the databases are relatively small and individuals can be required to accept a relatively invasive process.

Organizations can help gain user acceptance by emphasizing that biometrics reduces reliance on passwords'even if it sometimes does not, because some alternative authentication method must always be available.

The other use for biometrics is to identify strangers, such as individuals wanted by law enforcement or the Homeland Security Department.

Fingerprint matching and hand geometry are at the forefront of biometrics. Fingerprint systems typically are used for desktop and notebook PCs and for network authentication. Hand geometry is the most common access control technology, but it isn't suitable for most network authentication.
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It appears that a Geological Survey employee in New Mexico, Gilbert Thompson, was the first to use fingerprints in this country when he started using his own to authenticate documents back in 1882. But the concept was already so well known that Mark Twain mentioned fingerprint identification in two of his books.

The first systematic use here was by the New York Civil Service Commission in 1902. The FBI's Identification Division was a relative latecomer, authorized by Congress in 1924. But with this historical background, it's not surprising that a lot of effort has gone into developing cheap and reliable automated fingerprint authentication systems.

Hand geometry requires a much larger and more expensive piece of hardware than a tiny fingerprint sensor'a major reason it isn't used with PCs or anywhere a large number of sensor stations are required.

The coolest technology at the moment has to be facial recognition, even if it's not quite as cool as some people think it is. Anyone who has seen an episode of the TV show 'Las Vegas' can be forgiven for believing that facial-recognition software is incredibly powerful, able to identify friend or malefactor from a low-resolution, poorly lit image showing just a tiny part of a disguised face.

Coolness is actually an important factor in a new technology, because it bears on user acceptance. But people who believe what they see on TV also probably think they have a 'system' to beat the roulette wheel (casinos love people with systems).

Nevertheless, facial recognition, using cheap off-the-shelf hardware, can be effective as an inexpensive, secondary verification technology. It has high acceptance, but special cameras are required to improve accuracy in high-security applications.
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It's particularly difficult to pin down the cost of adding biometric technology to an authentication system because there is so much to consider. This is still a new technology, which adds new cost factors that might not be obvious at first glance, including:
  • New hardware

  • Additional processing overhead

  • Testing the hardware and software

  • Installation

  • User training

  • Dealing with exceptions (mostly failure to authenticate a legitimate user)

  • Enrollment

  • Hardware and software maintenance.

Although biometric systems can save the help desk from dealing with password problems, this will be offset by the need to maintain some sort of backup authentication. In the worst case, where an authentication technology is temperamental or people resist using biometrics, password-related costs could actually increase.

That's why it is so important to factor in usability and acceptability. The products listed in the accompanying chart are a sampling of what's available; many of the vendors listed offer a range of products.

For more information, check out GCN's Web page devoted just to biometrics, www.gcn.com/biometrics.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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