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Biometric technology moves to secure center stage

Posted: 19 Feb 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:biometrics? identification system? surveillance technology? biometrics consortium?

In the five months since terrorists struck New York and Washington, biometrics has moved from "fringe technology" to one with clear mainstream applications. Now suddenly hot, the biometrics industry is scrambling to deliver on years of promises while beginning to confront privacy issues raised by the technology.

The use of biometric technology is spreading fast, nearly matching the pace at which companies are entering the field through government/industry organizations like the Biometrics Consortium. Hundreds of the consortium's 800 members gathered here last week to lay the groundwork for the expected broad application of the technology at airports, military installations and other secure facilities.

"The biometric industry has been waiting for someone to pay attention to it," said John Woodward, senior policy analyst at the government-supported Rand Corp. "Now the industry has to deliver" even though biometrics is only a tool and not a "silver bullet" solution to all security problems.

Biometrics technology is turning up in different settings around the country. For example, San Francisco International Airport uses handprint readers to control access to about 200 portals. The "hand geometry" technology is used in conjunction with ID card readers to restrict airport employee access to secure areas.

So far, said Mark Denari, security chief at the San Francisco airport, biometrics has proven "highly effective for access control." The airport wants to expand its use of biometrics to handle up to 250,000 passengers a day.

Facial recognition systems appear to be gaining favor for law enforcement and other security applications, experts said, mainly because the technology is the least intrusive. In a security breach, said security specialist Mike Thomas of United Airlines, an intruder's face could also be flashed on screens throughout airports.

Face recognition technology is also being used by local police to monitor large crowds. The police in Tampa, Fla., used the technology during the 2001 Super Bowl. The technology is also being used at the Salt Lake City Olympics.

Viisage Technology Inc., a developer of face-recognition and other identification systems, said last week that it had won one of the largest Pentagon contracts so far to continue development of surveillance systems to be used for battlefield operations and high-security applications.

"We continue to see significant market interest in biometrics security and face-recognition technology in particular," said Tom Colatosti, Viisage's president and chief executive.

While private industry has been promoting biometrics technology since the 1970s, experts said the industry is now poised to take off following congressional action to improve homeland security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

For example, the Patriot Act approved by Congress in October includes a provision to develop technology standards for verifying the identity of visa applicants. It also called for technology standards needed to deploy biometrics technology at U.S. customs and other points of entry.

Pending legislation that officials said could "trump" Patriot Act provisions would require broad use of biometrics at U.S. customs and border crossings as well as in immigration documents. "Biometrics will be part of the immigration process in the very near future," either through the Patriot Act or pending legislation, said Robert Mocny of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Despite the advances, widely scattered biometric systems still lack interoperability while government agencies have tended to conduct their own test and evaluation programs. The overall effect, said Rand's Woodward, has been to inhibit progress on biometrics technology.

But technology issues, aided by a critical mass of companies moving into the field in pursuit of government contracts, may be easier to overcome than lingering privacy issues. Backers of the technology said current U.S. law holds that individuals in public places like airports or sporting events do not have their privacy rights violated by biometric-based surveillance technologies like facial-recognition systems.

Critics warn, however, that more-intrusive technologies like iris recognition and other human identification systems continue to raise serious privacy issues. Woodward said those concerns could change as security worries heighten.

? George Leopold

EE Times

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