A Touchy Subject

Fingerprint technology and other forms of biometrics have improved, but problems remain.

With issues of security, identity, and privacy preoccupying government officials, corporate executives, employees, and consumers, it’s hard to imagine a technology more in tune with its times than biometrics. Because it can confirm an individual’s identity through such unique biological features as voice, eyes, fingerprints, and even the shape of a hand, biometrics has been held up as an almost ideal way to prevent a variety of security abuses. But despite high interest, corporate uptake of the technology is only now beginning to gain momentum.

After a period in which government agencies and transportation authorities showed the keenest interest, “we’re seeing biometric technology move into business and consumer markets,” says ABI Research analyst Erik Michielsen. Today, less than 15 percent of the $1 billion spent on biometrics comes from the private sector. But by 2008, Michielsen predicts, corporate customers will account for more than 25 percent of a nearly $7 billion biometrics marketplace.

“We do envision corporate acceptance of biometrics,” says Prianka Chopra, biometrics program manager at market researcher Frost & Sullivan, adding that perceptions of biometrics are shifting from its potential threat (consumers, for example, have shied away from having fingerprints or other physical characteristics stored in a database) to its usefulness as a guarantor of privacy and accurate identification.

To date, biometric technology has come in many varieties from hundreds of mostly small companies, and vendor promises have often exceeded capabilities. But as the initial hype abates and some product categories enter a second generation, corporate buyers are beginning to regard biometrics as anything but science fiction.

Devices that measure hand geometry have emerged as popular choices for controlling access to such high-value facilities as research and development labs and data centers. Some companies, including McDonald’s and Owens-Illinois, also use the geometry readers as high-tech time clocks. Fingerprint recognition is a fertile area, with readers now showing up in new laptops, cell phones, and other mobile devices. IBM, for example, has built a fingerprint reader into its T42 ThinkPad and is likely to incorporate the biometric tool into other laptops. And systems that identify callers by voice have begun to draw some interest from financial-services firms.

MCI, which recently emerged from Chapter 11, uses hand geometry readers from Recognition Systems to control access to data centers where it hosts customer applications. Employees entering a facility are identified by badge and PIN number, and that identification is verified when they put their hand into a reader, which compares the live reading with the one stored in a database. James P. Callahan, director of data-center security at MCI, says that while fingerprinting and facial recognition systems sometimes trigger privacy concerns on the part of employees (who fear that fingerprints may be matched up with those held in law-enforcement computers or that a hacker who obtains facial images might be able to manufacture counterfeit identification, for example), the hand readers have been well accepted and have proved to be very reliable. He estimates the cost of installing a reader, which is wired to a server through an adjacent door, to be $1,200 to $1,500 per door, or about equal to a conventional card reader.

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