Electronic Design

Biometrics Wields A Double-Edged Sword

More than ever before, we need to verify our identities. But the trend toward biometrification raises some worrisome issues about others invading our personal lives.

Identity theft, terrorism, and fraud permeate our society. Biometrics addresses the urgent need for identification with a number of impressive technological advances. But what about privacy issues? Do we really want "Big Brother" tapping into our lives without permission?

Databases of biometric information could be misused if they fall into the wrong hands. Many security, law-enforcement, border-control, medical, and banking organizations maintain vast biometric databases that are available to government agencies and business entities.

Consumer electronics, on the other hand, don't have such databases. They use encrypted personal information tied to a name or personal identification number (PIN). The consumer device then mathematically compares the last information entered against the encrypted personal information.

Despite the concerns, the implementation of biometrics is soaring. National projects in many countries have focused on developing smart cards that do more than serve as credit cards. These cards also will be used as work permits, health cards, national identification, passports, and applications for military security access.

Adding more impetus to the market, the U.S. government is pressuring 26 visa-waiver nations to embed biometric data into their passports. Next-generation smart cards in Europe, Asia, and Japan promise to include biometrics for identification, passport, visa, and driver's license purposes. Needless to say, the scramble is on among smart-card chip manufacturers to cash in on this projected growth.

According to the International Biometric Group, the market for biometric methods that identify or verify a person's identity using a behavioral or physiological characteristic is projected to grow into the billions of dollars by 2008 (Fig. 1). Market-research firm Frost and Sullivan pegs the genetic testing market of biometrics for biomedical applications at $1 billion by 2007.

Biometrics uses various means of personal identification and verification, each providing different levels of authenticity. Fingerprinting, the most common method, is turning in some impressive advances via capacitive, thermal, and optical means. Other biometric methods include facial feature recognition, eye iris scans, voice recognition, and even vein recognition.

Some of these techniques combine with personal data stored on databases, which are sometimes encrypted to increase system effectiveness. Other systems rely on implantable chips with RFID capability. This raises many red flags for privacy advocates, even though the technology can be very helpful in health-care services.

One recent innovation, Fujitsu's MBF200 sensor, relies on capacitance sensing (Fig. 2). According to the company, this sensor is well suited for scanning latent fingerprints and matching them against the prints of several thousand people on a watch list.

Products from Atmel use thermal-swipe sensing, which measures the temperature differences between ambient conditions and a fingerprint's valleys and ridges. Kinetics Sciences' products employ an optical-swipe method, which includes a light source, a prism, a focusing lens, and dual linear arrays of light sensors for low-cost sensing with forensic-quality images that feature resolutions up to 1000 dots/in.

AuthenTec's optical TruePrint technology provides "true" identity capability (Fig. 3). The company claims that it is the only system in mass production with an accurate fingerprint technology.

In a different twist, South Korea's Techsphere opts for vein sensing as a means of identification. The idea is based on the fact that each person has a unique vein pattern, like fingerprints. Infrared cameras can capture this pattern when subjects hold their hand up to a scanner. This is popular in South Korea and Japan, mainly for cultural reasons, due to concerns about hygiene issues involving touching a sensor with fingertips.

The Beepcard Company designed a credit card that works only when it recognizes its owner's voice. The card has a tiny microphone, a loudspeaker, and a speech-recognition chip that compares the spoken password with a recorded sample. It combines this with encrypted personal data from the user's previous registration. But as impressive as speech recognition is today, it must be refined further to achieve the needed accuracy and reliability levels.

Researchers at Michigan State University, who have investigated all kinds of biometric approaches, concluded that the grand challenge is a biometric system that would operate simultaneously on the extremes of all three axes of usability, accuracy, and scalability (Fig. 4). They caution that no biometric system is 100% foolproof, though. Currently, they're developing a system that fuses together several biometrics to enhance accuracy.

The system first uses a pair of cameras to gauge a person's height. At this point, a closeup of the face is taken. Next, software analyzes and enhances this data to determine the subject's eye color, gender, and ethnicity. Then the data is combined with primary biometric, hand geometry, and face-recognition and fingerprint data.

Biometrics is so commonplace, it's being designed into consumer electronics like notebook computers, DVDs, cell phones, and disk drives. AuthenTec's EntréPad 1530, one of the smallest fingerprint sensors, is used on many LG Electronics and NTT Docomo cell phones (Fig. 5). The company's sensors also are finding their way into Toshiba's ultra-portable Protégé and mini Libretto U100 notebook computers.

Customers at the Edeka German supermarket chain soon will be able to pay for their shopping by placing their fingerprints on a scanner at the checkout counters. The company has piloted the technology since last November, and it is now ready to equip all of its stores. Several supermarket chains in the U.S. have piloted similar systems (see "Biometric Identification: How Safe Are Your Fingers?" April 28, p. 19, ED Online 10190).

Medical uses have sparked some controversy, too. Last October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Applied Digital Solutions' implantable VeriChip. The device gives medical personnel instant access to a patient's medical records via RFID technology (Fig. 6). Privacy advocates question the need for such a device, wondering what problem the technology actually solves. They also question patients' needs to give medical personnel "carte blanche" and instant access to their medical records, because they're purportedly the only people legally authorized to provide access to those records after being asked.

State-of-the-art medical imaging technology now uses light scattering, X-rays, and optical coherence tomography to provide deep looks inside the human body. While nearly all of these techniques require the subject to sit inside or in front of some sort of apparatus, it's only a matter of time before portable systems will offer inside-the-body peeks for more accurate medical diagnoses. Similar airline passenger security systems already examine baggage. Will these devices next be turned on the human body—without the subject's permission—in the name of security?

With research on nanotechnology proceeding at a breakneck pace, we may well be in for some surprises in a few more years. Nanotechnology scientists at Lucent Technologies' New Jersey Nanotechnology Consortium, in collaboration with the University of Illinois, are attempting to get an entire human genome on a chip or CD. The project includes $1.6 million in funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The device can sequence a person's DNA in seconds. The genome decoder device would require a speedy sensor that can identify biological agents. According to its developers, customers will eventually be able to walk into a clinic, provide a DNA sample, and then for a fee walk out moments later with a CD bearing their genetic data.

One thing is clear. There's no stopping the biometrics boom. Prepare for some sort of backlash, though, as personal privacy becomes a potential target for abuse.

TAGS: Components
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