While widespread use of biometrics technology is expected by 2008, a lot of work still needs to be done to iron out its shortcomings, according to experts.
Speaking at the launch of European Biometrics Forum (EBF) in Dublin on Monday, Anthony Allan research director with Gartner Research outlined the pros and cons of using biometrics technology, highlighting privacy concerns and obstacles to user acceptance, such as the treatment of people with disabilities and respecting religious practices.
Headquartered in Dublin, the EBF is a network of some of Europe's key biometrics experts and organisations. The group is supported by the EU and the Irish government and its mission is to promote biometrics, to develop industry standards, and to investigate the technology's shortcomings and potential new uses.
Biometrics refers to the use of technology to identify people based on unique physical characteristics such as their fingerprints, voice, iris retina or face. The technology was thought to be the next boom sector after September 11th, pegged as the ideal way to beef up security at airports and other public places.
But Allan said that even if sophisticated biometrics gear was in place in US airports, the technology alone probably would not have stopped the attacks. "They were legitimate travellers," he said, referring to September 11th terrorists, "they weren't known as terrorists then, so they wouldn't have appeared on recognition systems."
Indeed, Allan said that without adequate back security measures and databases, biometrics equipment is more or less useless. What's more, biometrics has proven to be fallible, with evidence available that has shown that wearing glasses can fool an eye scanner, prosthetic make-up can affect face scanners, a sore throat can change a voiceprint and that breathing heavily on a fingerprint scanner can also make prints unrecognisable.
Trying to dispel the perception that biometrics is the answer to world terrorism, Kush Wadhwa, director of consulting for International Biometrics Group said, "Biometrics is a security system like any other. Biometrics is one aspect, but one has to make sure all aspects of the system work."
Rather than boosting the biometrics industry, the 9/11 attacks actually slowed growth, Wadhwa said, because everyone who was going to adopt the technology waited to see what the government would do in terms of usage and legislation, and "government cycles are very slow."
In Ireland, the introduction of national ID cards and biometric passports has provoked controversy, amid fears of data protection and privacy. On this front, the trustworthiness of staff with access to biometrics systems and data is considered to be important. A question the government and companies would need to ask itself in adopting biometric national IDs is "what checks and balances do you have to prevent them (staff) issuing false IDs to people," according to Allan.
The lack of standards is seen as another big problem that needs to be tackled. "There are not enough standards in the biometrics industry and that is a hurdle," said Wadhwa. However, he said EBF will unify Europe in terms of different types of biometrics initiatives, including standards, interoperability (transfer of data from one biometrics system to another), and applications.
Yet despite its shortcomings, the technology has its strong points. Since biometric traits are more closely associated with an individual, they are regarded as better than passwords or tokens because they cannot be forgotten. Newer generations of biometrics technology are also more sophisticated and more accurate, such as new fingerprint scanners that incorporate methods of detecting body heat and blood flow and can scan below the surface layer making it more difficult to replicate