Biometrics approaching its promise: specialist

In some ways it's lucky that biometrics hasn't taken off, says the head of an Australian institute dedicated to the field.

In some ways it’s lucky that biometrics hasn’t taken off, says the head of an Australian institute dedicated to the field.

Dr Ted Dunstone, chairman of the Biometrics Institute in Sydney, says it was only this year at a US conference — one he has been going to for several years — that attendees were talking about technology maturely. People weren’t just up on stage selling, he says; rather, there was a confidence about the industry as a whole.

Why hasn’t biometrics yet met its promise? “It’s a combination of factors. Like any new technology, there’s often a lag between … the technology isn’t quite right; there have been a lot of people selling pretty shonky systems, so it’s taken a while for that to be cleaned out, and September 11 has played a major part in that. From an industry perspective [September 11] has brought a lot of Johnny-come-latelies to the party and also accelerated the hype in some ways.”

At a conference in Auckland last week, Dunstone put up a slide that broke the issues facing biometrics into four.

First, there is the technical — real-world limitations. Face-recognition systems, for example, the subject in which he gained his PhD, work in a controlled environment with fixed lighting but are next to useless when scanning crowds for particular faces, he says.

Then there’s the operational aspect — tuning the application correctly for variance and environmental constraints, and minimising false rejections. He offers as a less-than-optimal example a Disney theme park that employs a hand geometry recognition system for visitors, many of whom are, of course, also carrying bags, holding trundlers and corralling children.

The third parameter is assessing risks and threats — people will crack any system with an unlimited budget, he says. It’s about raising the bar high enough to keep breaches to a minimum.

The fourth issue is individuals’ privacy. Keeping biometrics information on a card you own, as opposed to a corporation’s database, can be one approach to safeguarding privacy, he says.

Governments are leading the way in the use of biometrics technology, says Dunstone. That’s the way people are getting familiarised with the technology. Though departments often run biometrics tests independently of each other, he says.

As for the delay in the use of biometrics, it’s a coincidence, he says, but the recent rash of privacy legislation dovetails nicely into the proliferation of the technology “and makes companies and vendors aware of their responsibilities in providing these sort of solutions”. Many are still grappling with the concepts of privacy and the implications of end-to-end security in a holistic way, represented by the four segments, he says.

Can biometrics now completely answer those four demands? “No, not yet.”

The institute was set up last year with funding aid from the Australian government, to help build a biometrics industry across the Tasman by encouraging acceptance of and confidence in the technology.

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