Banking on biometrics

Perceived as the security tools of affluent companies, biometrics is now ready for a larger scale market, but is the market ready for biometrics?

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By  Paul Barthram Published  June 29, 2003

I - Banking on biometrics|~||~||~|Perceived as the security tools of affluent companies, biometrics is now ready for a larger scale market, but is the market ready for biometrics?

Biometrics may not be on the top of most small-to -medium enterprise’s shopping lists, but within the past few years a wider range of technologies have progressively been making their way to the mass market. From fingerprint recognition and hand geometry, to technologies such as voice, face and iris recognition, it is a fact that biometrics is making its way into areas other than access to high security.

Yet while its true the technology is out there, most businesses operating in this field feel there is still a need to improve upon the current market.

Jorge Sebastio, CEO of eS gulf a security specialist in Bahrain, believes the Middle East is only tentatively looking at the technology.

“At this stage from what I’ve seen, there have only been pilot projects. You’ve got to remember this region is a very cautious market when it looks to adoptions on new technologies,” said Sebastio.

So does this mean that the technology is not as widely available as some might perceive?

“They are [available] if you’re looking for a biometric solution across the spectrum, whatever the technology it is available in the Middle East,” said Radwan Khader, CEO of Synergy Software Systems, suppliers of biometric-based solutions. “The question is, ‘is there enough demand for the wide spectrum of the technology’?”

Divyajot Ahluwalia, product manager for solution providers Pixel Digital Systems, said biometrics was still taking its time to move into the private sector. “Apart from the government, the private sector has still not adapted to this technology, primarily because it’s not popular enough yet.”

Recent high profile implementations of biometric solutions have included security systems for Dubai International Airport and Hajj in Saudi Arabia. While last month a biometrics conference in Dubai extolled the virtues of biometrics technology, the signs are that the market is starting to move, as Synergy’s Khader commented it is now ‘picking up speed in that it’s going into secondary markets.’

||**||II - Moving into secondary markets|~||~||~|

Acer Computer Middle East has previously experimented with the inclusion of a fingerprint biometric security device in its TravelMate notebook range, and is now looking to increase its commitment to biometrics, as Eugene Thomas director of business development explained.

“A while ago, Acer introduced a very high-end TravelMate 700 model that was configured with biometric technology. Looking back, the market was probably not developed enough at that stage to take it on, the awareness levels were pretty low—but we are confident that the trend will really take off,” said Thomas.

Nima Tabibi, general manager of Business Automation and Security Systems (BASS), has already seen signs of success through sales of its solutions and consumer devices.

“In the region it still has a long way to go, until people are ready to actually accept the other technologies as well. The finger print technology is going to do well, and is already doing well. From the amount of sales we have in the market I know that by the end of the year it will probably double,” said Tabibi.

Crucial to the development of the market for biometric devices is sales to the commercial sector. Security will be at the forefront to this, but security devices are really only one aspect of the technology.

Biometrics can now be used as an alternative to proximity cards for time and attendance, zoning devices (allowing employees access to only certain areas), and as an alternative access option for user names and passwords.

With end-users often having to remember up to 8 individual user names and passwords, the possibility to replace these with biometrics is becoming more attractive, as Pixel’s Ahluwalia explained.

“A US report found an organisation with sufficient IT resources would spend nearly $150 per password-reset incident. Which meant that about 20-25% of all calls are password-reset related. Now if you translate that into real monetary terms, you would find that by implementing a biometrics system, your password reset incidents would reduce, your help desk calls would reduce, and your productivity would increase,” said Ahluwalia.

||**||III - Cost effectiveness|~||~||~|

While it’s fair to say the biometrics devices are still highly priced for certain technologies, Ahluwalia is not alone in believing the cost saving benefits of such devices outweigh the additional cost of the technology.

BASS’ Tabibi feels there are also cost savings to be made by time and attendance devices using biometrics. “Organisations, where they look after a large number of employees, face the problem of ‘buddy-punching’. So if an employee is going to be late a couple of hours in the morning, they give their card to somebody else to punch in for them. With the finger print technology they can register up to 1,000 employees at any given time. Suddenly the ‘buddy-punching’ issue is something they wouldn’t have to worry about anymore.”

Khader suggests another practical use of biometrics as a form of security. “It’s not only access control, but safety as well. When you actually use the right piece of software with access control, in addition to actually giving you access control, you can determine who’s where in an emergency. So if there’s a fire in the building, when the firemen arrive you have a means of telling them how many people are still left in the building and where they can look for them.”

Are people really expected to queue up in order to biometrically leave the blazing building though? Khader explained Synergy had adopted a solution that could provide a biometric reader at the emergency mustering point. “So when people go to that point they actually register themselves and the system can immediately tell you who is safely out of the building and who isn’t.”

||**||IV - Reliability|~||~||~|

Cost saving, accuracy, and life saving technology, but businesses still have their concerns when it comes to adopting biometrics.

For all the talk of reliability, the accuracy of biometrics does have to be called into question. Sebastio believes it’s important to explain the systems aren’t without flaws. “With biometrics it’d be difficult for you to loan your finger or your voice or your face to somebody else. That’s not to mean that biometrics is bullet-proof and there’s no way of bypassing it. No security technology is ever 100% but biometrics just gives you that extra level of insurance.

“Look at the trials that were made in Saudi Arabia earlier this year during Hajj for example. One limitation that has become apparent is the devices became dirty and had to be cleaned on a regular basis. The limitations depend on the environment where they’re used,” he added.

While some place the failures rates of biometric systems as one in a million when it comes to false identification, critics have argued this can be much higher, but biometrics can also cause problems by false rejection, such as if a regular user has accidentally damaged their method of identification. Pixel’s Ahluwalia doesn’t see this as a major problem though.

“Our solutions have the possibility of recording ten of your fingerprints, so if there is an error with one finger, you’ve had a cut or burnt it, you have the rest of your nine fingerprints. Now if you were to reach a scenario where you’ve destroyed all your ten fingerprints, well I doubt your ability to use a computer thereafter,” said Ahluwalia.

||**||V - Making Money|~||~||~|

Another fail safe to ensure correct entry of users is to mix and match biometric devices. This however presents its own problems. The spiralling cost of mixing and matching technologies would be a barrier for smaller businesses interested in the technology for the foreseeable future. So in this respect is it really possible for the smaller solution providers to make money out of biometrics?

BASS’ Tabibi believes it is possible but only through instant solutions. “Yes, it would be for very specific applications like an access control system that would open a door for you. So if it’s a simple solution, you can actually on a stand-alone units store up to 500 people on one reader, because the templates are really small. It could even come as a kit.”

“For a solution provider to make money he needs to sell quite a bit, because whatever margin you make on $5,000, you would have to make a lot of those $5,000 sales to make significant revenue,” said Khader. “Compare that to a solution that costs $100,000, and you can see the difference why a top-end biometrics solution provider has a better chance of making a profit than a smaller one.”

“A number of resellers have approached us to sell solutions,” Ahluwalia commented. “Unfortunately when you go and talk to them, and say what it’s going to cost them. Well he’s going to think twice certainly and in the process the solution integrator typically backs out, but that’s not the way this technology will move. It will move, but you’ve got to be persistent with it. In that respect we are looking for resellers who are committed to this technology, and who share our vision of this technology.”

So with the technology’s availability and costs lowering, where does the future lie for biometrics in the Middle East?

“Needs dictate acceptance. When the need is there people will accept it whether they like it or not. When you have a highly sensitive very secure area, people will not hesitate to use biometrics because this is the only technology, which genuinely gives them a high-level of security,” believes Khader.

“At Acer, we believe that in order to gain acceptance in the market with biometrics it is vital that the industry invests in education. So before we take the step to push biometrics throughout the Middle East, we will endeavour to hold seminars and information sessions for our distribution channel so that they in turn can educate the end-user,” commented Thomas.

Sebastio agreed. “The next step is the market needs to become more aware of the benefits of this technology and I think that is the area that still needs to be worked on a little . People have heard about it, but people have not necessarily investigated what it really means for their business or even tried it. When they go that step further, then we see the potential for a market explosion.”

||**||VI - An eye to fly|~||~||~|

An eye to fly

As one of the larger scale biometric operations within the UAE, Dubai International Airport is seen by far to be the most prominent.

In an attempt to ease the workload generated by over fifteen million passengers per year, Dubai’s Department of Naturalisation & Residency Administration (DNRD) has automated its exit/entry system at the Airport, with operations due to start in August.

Passengers that have enrolled for an entry/exit card at DNRD’s airport office will be able to enter and leave the country by simply having their fingerprints and identity card scanned at a newly installed immigration gate.

“As you walk up to the gate you will show your card, the gate will then open for you and the system will verify your identification from your fingerprint. Essentially, the system does exactly what is done manually by an officer but here it is automated,” said Lieutenant Colonel Khaled Lootah, IT section head, DRND.

The DNRD has automated the system to lighten the workload being created by Dubai’s growing number of business visitors and tourists.

“We are a small department, but we handle over fifteen million passengers per year. The department handles all of the transactions generated by these passengers internally and within 24 hours. This means automation was the obvious way for us to go,” commented Lieutenant Colonel Lootah.

Since December last year, the system has been built in-house on a distributed .NET architecture from Microsoft. It runs on Windows 2000 Professional edition, Windows Advanced Server and a SQL database. System information is kept on a storage area network (SAN) and it is hosted on high-end HP servers. It also incorporates a number of security peripherals bought in from multi-biometric security technology company Identix, such as fingerprint scanners


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