Biometrics is quite rightly viewed to be at the cutting edge of security technology. From the very first commercial application of a finger print reader in 1984, we have seen new systems and applications introduced to the market on a regular basis; some are still firmly in the development phase whilst others, like iris and facial recognition, are gradually being introduced into practical installations.
In many ways, it has taken the increased threat from global terrorism and organised crime to create an acceptance of biometric security, convincing an anxious and cynical public that systems do not necessarily pose a threat to civil liberties, provided they are properly controlled and effectively managed.
These emergent technologies are now providing specifiers and security managers with real choice, allowing them to select the most appropriate system for their particular needs - balancing the key variables of accuracy, quality, reliability, speed of performance and cost.
Whereas finger print readers are typically at the lower end of the biometric cost scale (partly resulting from the benefits of relatively high production levels, which in four years has seen the cost of readers practically halved), they also tend to be at the lower end of the accuracy scale and so are most appropriate for higher volume and far lower risk applications.
Facial recognition systems are currently second to finger print readers in terms of global usage. Although facial recognition systems have a higher relative unit cost, they do offer increased accuracy levels. Inherently the technology has a number of advantages, most notably, that it is readily acceptable by the public and relatively easy to integrate with other security systems, particularly CCTV. But development work still needs to be done to improve its performance. It needs to make allowance for the changes that occur to the human face over time - aging, facial hair, skin tone, glasses, etc. All of which could impede the recognition software. And technically, the affect of prevailing light conditions and the angle of the image needs to be reduced, thereby allowing faster and more accurate processing.
Two other strongly emerging systems are vein pattern readers and iris recognition. Both offer a highly attractive combination of accuracy, reliable performance and medium cost and are likely to be the technologies that we will see in the higher-level security systems in the coming years.
In terms of eye recognition, developments are being seen in both iris and retina scanning. Iris recognition offers a highly effective and reliable security option; each individual iris has around 260 unique characteristics and individuals' irises tend not to experience great changes over time. Furthermore, recognition is somewhat affected by the angle of image capture and ambient light conditions and the technology is equally effective through glasses, contact lenses and goggles.
Performance can be affected by certain eye problems, such as cataracts, and if the user is wearing coloured contact lenses or sunglasses and these are the drawbacks. Retinal scanning takes the technology a step further and examines the characteristics of patterns of blood vessels at the back of the eye. Although effective and reasonably accurate, this is a particularly time intensive process and is seen by users to be quite intrusive - each individual must look directly into a reader, where a low intensity light is directed through the pupil and performs a 360-degree retinal scan.
Currently, both iris and retina recognition equipment are cost-prohibitive. Also, given the speed and user issues associated with retina scanning, it is likely that it will only be used in the most high-security situations in the short to medium term, with iris recognition being the more dominant technology - potentially being used in conjunction with facial recognition systems.
The benefits of vein recognition in particular are significant - and the system is already proving highly effective in the banking sector in Japan. Palm vein technology was developed by Fujitsu to help combat the increasing incidence of financial fraud and forgery, problems which have plagued many financial institutions in Japan for a number of years - at great cost to the country's economy.
One of the main benefits of vein readers is that, unlike fingerprints that change during childhood, the palm and finger vein pattern is established in the womb and is constant throughout a person's life. The scanners operate on near-infrared light to read the palm vein pattern, which lies underneath the epidermis and so can't be distorted by damage to the skin, age or the wearing of gloves. Vein readers also benefit from being non-contact - a particular advantage in environments such as health care, where hygiene may be an issue.
Several of Japan's major banks have been using palm and finger vein recognition at cash points, rather than PIN, for almost 3 years now and are confirming extraordinarily high standards of accuracy, with false rejection rates of 0.01% and false acceptance rates of less than 0.00008%.
The next five years promise to be a time of continued change, as complex and expensive research programmes deliver refinements to current biometric systems and the development of completely new technologies and applications.