Security force

Biometric technology is maturing fast with governments introducing national ID card schemes and large and small private companies implementing biometric solutions to boost the bottom line as well as bolster security. This points to a growing maturity in the business but stiff barriers to entering the mainstream remain.

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By  Simon Duddy Published  June 29, 2004

|~|Lt-Col-Ahmad-copy_m.jpg|~|UAE Ministry of Interior’s Al-Raisi says the UAE national ID card scheme is designed to provide a core database for the country and will be used to help the planning of resources, benefits and services. The ministry will hire between 1000-1200 staff, set up 22 service points and deal with 7000 requests per day.|~|Political instability in the region has been generally regarded has having a profound effect on the security industry. It has exposed the limitations of many traditional methods of verifying people and pushed biometrics to the fore. “Increased terrorist activity has resulted in governments looking for solutions that help to positively identify individuals,” says Patrick Gilmore, business development director for Datastrip Africa & Middle East. While this has given a worldwide boost to biometrics, especially in the USA where the government created the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the September 11 attacks, many vendors have emphasised the importance of other factors on the uptake of biometrics in the Middle East. “Biometrics is primarily making inroads due to convenience”, says Rainer Erdmann, managing director, TST Arabia. “We believe that the market breaks down to about 15% for security and 85% for convenience,” he explains. It’s clear that both security and business issues have led to considerable growth in the sector and this progress is projected to gather pace in the coming years. The International Biometric Group (IBG), an independent integration and consulting firm, predicts that world revenue from biometrics products and services will grow from US$719 million in 2003 to US$2.6 billion in 2006 and US$4.6 billion by 2008. There is reason to be cautious about these estimates though, as the IBG estimated in 2002 that total biometrics revenue would be worth US$927 million by 2003. That this projection fell short by some US$200 million sounds a note of warning for the industry. Nevertheless, most vendors are cautiously optimistic that the many biometric implementations in the region are the beginnings of a broad acceptance of the technology. Indeed, it is the variety of applications and industries employing biometric solutions that has been most striking and encouraging for vendors. In addition to the security arena, biometrics are being used by human resources to improve punctuality and weed out ghost workers, in hospitals to provide patient data for doctors on their rounds and in national identity card schemes in Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Oman's citizen registration system is based on smart cards with a stored thumbprint biometric. By the end of the year, the country expects to have issued 1.2 million cards. Iris recognition was also piloted in Saudi to keep track of Haj pilgrims. One of the largest schemes so far is the UAE's national ID card scheme. “The scheme will provide a core database for the whole country and will be used by other ministries such as e-government”, says Lt Col Ahmed N Al Raisi, director of the Information Technology & Telecom dept, Ministry of Interior, Abu Dhabi Police and director of the United Arab Emirates national ID project. “The vision is about more than security, it’s about developing a modern population register, which will greatly help planning of resources, benefits and services.” The ministry plans to hire between 1000-1200 staff, working over two shifts in 22 service points, to deal with 7000 new card requests per day. The Ministry expects to issue 500,000 new cards per year to cope with the UAE’s high birth rate and the large numbers of migrant workers the country attracts. The Ministry will use the high-speed fibre infrastructure used by the military and police to link its service points. The government has already decided to include a fingerprint biometric on the card but given concerns over false negatives for a minority of the population with ill-defined fingerprints, the card will probably also include another biometric, however, the Ministry has yet to decide which one. The biometrics will be integrated with other security technologies to prevent the cards from being mis-used. The card will be among the first to integrate both biometrics and public key infrastructure (PKI) on the same card to be used on a wide scale. The Ministry has opted for Sagem technology to take care of the biometrics side of the card scheme. “The Sagem solution offers more than one component — biometrics, population database, document imaging and security compliance — we get all of these under one roof with Sagem,” says Al-Raisi. As well as high profile projects like the UAE national ID card scheme, many smaller implementations have made an impact on the regional landscape. A typical example is the use of biometrics by the Saudi Import Company (Banaja) HR department. It has introduced a biometric system to keep track of the time attendance of its widely distributed staff. The system was implemented by Saudi’s Noortech and it consists of fingerprint scanners used in conjunction with proximity cards. “We have deployed the system in all of our offices throughout the Kingdom,” says Amro Fakahani, IT manager of Banaja. “It gives employee time attendance information to managers in a web application. We are a distributor and attendance is very important for us, especially in warehouses in remote areas. The scheme has eliminated people signing in using other people’s cards,” he adds. The technology involved a learning curve for employees but over the last year as the company has gradually implemented the scheme staff timekeeping has improved. “We also plan to use it to limit access in certain areas,” says Fakahani. “For example, in parts of warehouses where we store pharmaceutical goods we will only allow authorised people to enter,” he explains. Despite these encouraging signs for the industry, many barriers still stand in the way of biometrics becoming a widely used technology. One of the most important of these is that users have yet to be convinced of the accuracy of these devices. “Fingerprint scanning still suffers error rates of anywhere from 0.5% to 2% depending upon the technology option used,” says Earl Perkins, vice president, Security & Risk Strategies, Meta Group. Some vendors argue that this task has been made harder because of some biometrics companies going to market early with immature and flawed products. “A few years ago huge companies came out with immature sensor technologies that had a negative impact on the market,” says TST Arabia’s Erdmann. “Smaller companies took longer and developed better solutions but have to overcome the bad press,” he adds. Even taking bad press into account, there are real world issues that inhibit the accuracy of biometrics. Fingerprint recognition is particularly susceptible. One of the main reasons for this is that a small minority of any population will have an ill-defined fingerprint. An estimated 1% of the UAE population has a fingerprint that is too faint to be captured or recognised. In large projects such as the UAE’s national ID card scheme, that equates to some 50,000 people falling through the cracks. Vendors have responded to this problem in a variety of ways. Most advocate backing up fingerprints with another biometric. “We expect to see biometrics getting more reliable but you can’t just rely on one biometric,” says Gilmore. “In the UAE they realise this. Iris scanning isn’t perfect, because it won’t work with blind people, for example, while fingerprinting won’t work with everyone. The challenge is to educate users that a biometric is part of the solution, not the whole solution,” he adds. A downside to using multiple biometrics, such as iris, face, hand and voice recognition is that it increases the amount of information that has to be captured and stored. This is time consuming, both when capturing the data and when verifying people as thousands of records often have to be sorted through to find a match. As well as using multiple biometrics to boost accuracy, vendors are working hard to improve the performance of individual biometrics. Most improvements have been made with the most mature biometric — fingerprinting. A number of vendors are working on touchless technology. One such solution is TST Arabia’s BiRD Iii, which uses light to reflect finger ridges. This generates an image of the skin’s surface and has a number of advantages over other methods, such as increased wear and tear of equipment. Touch sensors typically have to be cleaned every 15 minutes to maintain effective use. It also increases accuracy as no latent fingerprints are left on the sensor and the finger area captured is more uniform. With touch-based sensors it is possible to position a finger incorrectly or press too hard and so create a false rejection. Kuwaiti trading company, the Al-Sayer group found the accuracy of its time attendance biometric solution, provided by Identix, to be about 95%. “We had problems when the machines were outside and also with those in the garages, where mechanics had grease and oil on their fingers,” says Saleh Al-Kout, group manager, Information Services Department, Al-Sayer Group. Another enhancement of fingerprint technology is sensors that can scan below the surface of the finger. This means that even people with faint or blemished fingerprints can be scanned with more reliability. Another flaw found in early fingerprint detection sensors was that they could not always tell the difference between a real finger and moulded plastic with a fingerprint imprinted on it. TST Arabia has also developed a life detection technology that can spot the difference. As well as working on improving the sensors, vendors are looking at better ways to incorporate the technology into more-rounded solutions. Storing biometrics as raw images helps with accuracy rates but it takes up lots of space, limiting the number of users who can be scanned by each machine. Some vendors create a basic biometric pattern and then discard the raw image. This means that storage is no longer an issue, however, some vendors maintain that raw images are more reliable. Other usability problems include portability. Until recently, the vast majority of biometrics business solutions were fixed, but more portable solutions are coming on to the market. A good example is the Datastrip DSVII-SC handheld biometric smart card reader. The handheld comprises an ID card reader with an integrated fingerprint sensor. It is designed for secure mobile identity verification in locations where stationary equipment cannot be accommodated. That practical, portable products for the business are only starting to emerge shows the immaturity of the biometrics market. True, fingerprint solutions are beginning to get reasonably sophisticated, but other solutions such as iris, retina, hand and face recognition are in the early stages of development. Although other technologies are theoretically stronger, it is fingerprinting, with its huge databases of fingerprint records, that remains by far the most popular choice of biometric. An issue that goes hand-in-hand with the immaturity of the market, and just as big a threat to its prospects, is the lack of standardisation in the industry. “You have too many small companies offering too many types of biometric options for too many types of solutions, chasing too much money in the process,” says Meta Group’s Perkins. A good example of this is competing vendors using different algorithms to map fingers and using proprietary databases to handle storage. The US National Institute for Standards and Technology is working with other US government agencies and industry to devise standards that will ensure interoperability. However, it is likely to take some years for competition to weed out the weaker players and only then can standards effectively be enforced. Until this happens biometrics will sell mostly in specialised verticals rather than making the move to the mainstream business world. “Biometric devices are already a commodity,” says Hans-Jorg Hirsch of KBA Giori, a company in the printing and secure document markets. “However only the complete unbundling of the devices from the software solution will take this further. This will require commonly accepted global standards for these systems and interfaces,” he adds. Standards are necessary to bring technical interoperability to biometric systems, but perhaps equally important are laws to govern how biometric data should be used. The fear is that big brother is not only watching people but has their fingerprints, iris, retina and face scans on file. There are legitimate concerns that as society grows increasingly dependent on biometrics, they could be mis-used by the companies and institutions that hold the databases. Again vendors are adapting technology to negate the privacy issue. Biometric products that use a pattern file rather than a raw image cannot be used for anything other than verifying that particular person on that specific device. This means there will be less biometric data for unscrupulous people to mis-use. Not everyone agrees that it is a burning issue anyway. “Discussions on privacy are not in the focus here [Middle East], like in Europe,” says Dietmar Fischer, managing director, SD Industries. “The Middle East market is one of the most important for biometrics in the world, it is a first mover market with quick decisions and money in the background,” he adds. Certainly the UAE’s impending national ID card scheme indicates a willingness in the region to place trust both in biometrics and in the institutions that are carrying out the schemes. Indeed, the world is looking on to see how such an ambitious project fares when it launches. Despite some tough obstacles, there is no doubt that the biometrics business is making headway in the region. The technology has improved and end user satisfaction is growing. High profile projects, such as the UAE’s national ID scheme are hitting the headlines and smaller scale time attendance implementations are also adapting well to business needs in the region. However, vendor ambitions are much greater. They envisage moving the technology into the mainstream with far-reaching aims such as replacing the PIN numbers on credit cards with biometric recognition. For that to happen, even in the next five years, the technology needs to mature at a great pace. There is plenty of work to be done on issues such as accuracy, reliability and standardisation if biometrics are to make the leap to the mainstream.||**||

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