by John Wesley
One of the major barriers to a universally interconnected Internet is the threat of breaches of security. Almost daily, newspapers across the country run articles describing how "hackers" accessed or corrupted confidential information via their computer. A major technological improvement in the area of security is biometric identification procedures.
Biometrics is the study of distinct differences in unique biological traits. Biometric identification systems use these distinct traits to make a positive identification of a particular person. Biometric identification devices have been a staple of James Bond films and spy novels for years. Until recently, they were just ideas. Recent developments have made biometric identification security systems a present day reality. Software and hardware programs available now can compare a single photograph with a database of sixty million pictures and select a match in minutes.
Biometric identification systems utilize a wide variety of physical traits. Typical systems use either a retinal scan, fingerprint recognition, voice analysis, iris scans, keystroke dynamics, hand print analysis, facial scans, or handwriting analysis. Some advanced biometric systems analyze multiple sets of biological data. The idea behind biometric identification is that every human has distinct physical characteristics. No two sets of fingerprints are the same. Similarly, every human iris and face are distinct and can be used to verify the identity of that person. There is little doubt that biometric identification systems will have a tremendous impact on telecommunication security. Fingerprint recognition systems may have the most immediate and profound affect in this area. Fingerprints have long been used to ascertain the identity of a person. This type of personalized security protection will benefit both business as well as private computer users. Several obstacles must be overcome for this technology to truly be commercially viable. Biometric identification must be affordable. Biometric technology has been around for a long time but was too expensive for anyone except the government to utilize. Biometric technology must also be reliable. The system must be able to keep "hackers" out while allowing designated people access without hassle. A feasible biometric system must be secure. There are major privacy concerns with stockpiling confidential biometric information. Finally, a commercially viable biometric system must be appropriate for everyone.
Great strides have been made in the area of affordability with fingerprint recognition machines. The Identicator Corporation, the first company to produce PC-based automated fingerprint technology, recently introduced fingerprint scanners built directly into a terminalís monitor, keyboard, or mouse which retail for ninety-nine dollars ($99). Business users can now afford to provide fingerprint scanners on each computer terminal. Similar scanners for home and laptop use are expected soon. The market should quickly be swamped with sub-two-hundred dollar fingerprint recognition systems applicable to either business or personal use.
Biometric identification systems have been susceptible to inaccuracy and deceit. Fingerprint scanners have as high as a five-percent (5%) false negative rate, failing to recognize a match where there is one. False positives are about one in a million. Fingerprint scanners are also unable to distinguish whether a finger has been removed from the ownerís hand. Similarly, retinal scanners can not detect a dislodged eyeball. Other biometric identification systems have flaws as well. Facial recognition systems, which match landmarks on a human face with those stored in its database, can not distinguish between identical twins. Voice print and signature recognition systems can be affected by simple changes, like the flu or an injured finger. Likewise, a high-resolution photograph can fool an iris scanner. Many of these problems can be corrected with advanced biometric identification and similar technology. Requiring multiple identifiers, like a fingerprint and a retinal scan, or implementing a thermal-imaging sensor to detect heat would certainly increase the level of security. Furthermore, high-end systems measure for hemoglobin or electrical conductivity in the scanned image. The problem with establishing higher security measures is that cost is greatly increased.
Privacy is at the forefront of the biometric security debate. Proposed legislation in California would regulate the use of biometric devices and data and make trafficking in biometric information a crime. Such measures would require biometric information gatherers to gain the consent of each individual before their biometric data could be taken or shared with a third party. Biometric information databases must be secure from outside hacking if this technology is ever to be implemented on a broad scale. Other concerns are the inevitable computer glitches and inept business employees that might accidentally release stored biometric data from secured areas. Biometric identification systems often only create a mathematical algorithm of the scanned image. This reduces the possibility of hackers stealing imprints of a users biometric data and assuming that personís identity. A related privacy concern regarding biometric identification is the all knowing biometric database. While walking through the airport a camera takes a facial scan and instantly your life history is displayed on a computer monitor in some back office. Similarly, face recognition is being used in Londonís high crime neighborhoods to identify known criminals from great distances. A new form of racism may be embedded where we are unable to ever escape the conduct of our past.
Biometric identification security must also be accessible by everyone. Roughly two to three percent of the population is without a necessary body part used in biometric identification. Although this number may sound insignificant, if biometric identification is to be the new source of positive ID, it must be adapted to everyone. This author believes that in the near future new technology will allow biometric scanners to search biometric databases for any human biographical data scanned. Scanners and databases will be universal and unlimited.
Biometric identification offers obvious advantages in security. Additionally, biometric identification systems use distinct human traits that can not be lost or forgotten. With improved security will come global acceptance. In 1999, the market for biometrics was approximately two hundred and sixty million dollars ($260 million). That number is expected to increase by thirty-to-forty percent each year. Large-scale mergers and strategic alliances between software, hardware, and biometric identification companies will benefit the companies, businesses, and private computer users. The Gartner Group expects that within three to four years, one-third of all corporations will have implemented some form of biometric identification system. Biometrics is the wave of the future, jump on now or be left behind.
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