By Published on .

Chances are you didn't have to scan your fingertip, palm or retina to enter your office this morning. But the science of biometric identification, which allows machines to identify people by their physical characteristics, is growing in popularity. Last year, companies spent $196 million on biometrics, a figure projected to double this year.

Nuclear power plants and banks will naturally employ first-rate security systems. But it remains to be seen how biometrics will cross paths with everyday consumers. It may be through law enforcement.

Fingerprinting, which dates back to 1901, counts as law enforcement's first use of biometrics. Face-scanning is its latest. When police in Tampa, Fla., began using cameras in July to match criminals' faces with pedestrians, a local backlash ensued, stirring a national debate about privacy.

The Tampa episode raises questions about commercial use. Will retailers become Big Brother, identifying customers as soon as they enter their stores? Casinos may already be using biometrics technology to spot card counters.

Joseph Atick, Ph.D., doesn't think biometrics will always spark controversy. The company he founded in 1994, Jersey City, N.J.-based Visionics Corporation, supplied Tampa with its face-scanning technology. Before Visionics, Atick ran a neuroscience lab. American Demographics' David Whelan recently tracked him down to discuss the field's future.

AD: What would you tell a company that says it doesn't anticipate needing such an advanced security system?

JA: Biometric identifiers cannot be lost, stolen, hacked or forgotten and you never leave home without them. Not all businesses need that kind of security but eventually most devices {doors, locks, cars, computers} will include cameras or finger sensors at a low cost. Internet and wireless commerce will also drive adoption. There's a famous cartoon that says ‘On the Internet no one knows you're a dog.’ In the future you'll have to prove you're not a dog to do business online. Biometrics will be the mechanism for authentication.

AD: How should privacy issues be handled?

JA: Education is key. Biometric identifiers are digital codes that cannot be used to reconstitute your image or fingerprint. I believe that biometrics enhance privacy because they limit access to data and information about us. Biometrics can secure medical or financial records better than passwords. Our future does not depend on how the wind blows with regard to privacy policy. Consumers will choose it because it is the most secure form of identification. Responsible use of biometrics must include informed consent.

AD: Are the cameras in Tampa based on informed consent?

JA: We control what goes into the databases. When a camera scans a crowd for criminals, it does not record people's faces. Rather, it matches the faces of known criminals with those in the crowd. We do not support any use of crowd-scanning for commercial purposes. For example, stores should not scan you and then greet you with marketing messages. That is, unless you invite them to do so.

AD: In the future, what will keep people from fooling biometric systems the same way they hack passwords?

JA: This is a realistic concern. Cameras can test for heat in the veins of the body. Or check for tiny eye movements. A hotter topic is “goats,� people missing hands or whose faces are too wrinkled — and who therefore can't use the systems. For these people we need good exception handling services, such as human intervention over the phone at an ATM.

AD: Besides security and law enforcement, what are the other potent applications for biometric identification technology?

JA: Travel is a big one. Over the next 10 years, air travel will double in volume to 3 billion travelers a year. Airports can't serve that demand without compromising security. Airline associations are already developing biometric identification standards. In the next 10 to 15 years travelers will check luggage, board a plane and even pick up the rental car, all using the same biometric template — which will be linked to billing. This application could be used everywhere — pervasive commerce. In a world with massive connectivity, our digital identities will need to be authenticated.

AD: Could other fields be spawned by biometric identification technology?

JA: There will be significant offshoots. Call them intelligent human machine interfaces. Without identifying them, you can count how many people are looking at a display at a store. A museum showing a Monet exhibit can tell which painting was viewed the most or for the longest. We're also researching how to interpret facial expressions — smiles and frowns — and how to read eyes. We can tell whether a consumer likes a pair of shoes by tracking their eye movement.

Most Popular