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The Eyes Have It

Concerned about security, companies may soon rely on a wide range of biometrics. Turns out you're even more special than you thought.

In the movie Minority Report, an Orwellian tale set in the mid­-21st century, lasers routinely pick up people’s identity by scanning their eyes as they walk down a mall corridor. On the run from the law, special agent John Anderton escapes detection by swapping his baby blues for somebody else’s brown eyes. He does, however, keep his old peepers handy in a Ziploc bag — just in case he needs to enter secure locations.

Far-fetched? Maybe. But experts say biometric technologies, in which high-tech devices are used to identify unique human characteristics, are no longer the stuff of science fiction.

Indeed, devices already exist that identify individuals by fingerprints, faces, voices, and, yes, even irises. Biometrics can identify people by more unusual human characteristics as well — things like ear patterns, gaits, and even body odors.

And make no mistake: in this era of heightened corporate security, Big Brother is big business. According to the International Biometric Industry Association, the biometrics market will jump from its year 2000 mark of $165 million a year to $2.5 billion by the end of the decade. Even discounting the usual industry-association fluff factor, it’s clear that biometrics will play an increasingly important role in not only public security but also the corporate realm.

Fingerprint identification remains the mainstay of the biometrics industry, representing well over half of the total commercial biometrics market. But since no biometric technology is foolproof, security experts recommend combining several technologies to pinpoint potential threats.

According to industry watchers, this need for triangulation is fueling interest in less-conventional biometric technologies. The fact that these experts even use the phrase “less-conventional biometric technology” speaks volumes about the fact that biometrics has come on fast enough for there to be “conventional” approaches. What follows is a guide to some emerging forms of biometric identification.

Facial Recognition

Like fingerprints, no two faces are alike. But facial recognition biometrics fall short when compared with fingerprints — mismatches are common despite recent technological advances. Still, this particular biometric technology can prove a useful barometer of who a person might be, which can then be verified via other biometrics.

How It Works. A person’s face is photographed, scanned, and assessed by software that measures dozens of features — the distance from the bottom of the nose to the top of the upper lip, the angle of the head, and so on. These measurements are then encoded, digitalized, and stored in a database for comparison purposes. A single puss can be compared against millions of other faces in seconds.

At Super Bowl XXXVI, for instance, many unsuspecting fans were furious when they learned their faces had been scanned and compared with crude mug shots of known criminals. With terrorism still a real threat in the United States, the National Park Service operates a face-recognition surveillance system that snaps pictures of visitors who board ferries to the Statue of Liberty.


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