US seeks NZ input on international security

New Zealand's status as "ally" or mere "friend" of the US may be in some doubt, but our alliance is being sought over a plan to introduce biometrics as a standard part of international security mechanisms.

New Zealand’s status as “ally” or mere “friend” of the US may be in some doubt, but our alliance is being sought over a plan to introduce biometrics as a standard part of international security mechanisms.

And if our government is persuaded, Unisys appears well placed to get some of the major integration work.

Unisys’ global public-sector director of “positive identification and access control” Ed Schaffner spoke to “a number of New Zealand government departments” during a side trip here from a Sydney conference organised by Australia’s government-supported Biometrics Institute. The US Department of Defence is one of Unisys’ major clients, and is interested in seeing some international uniformity over security and identification measures, Schaffner says.

“We and our client are interested in providing an infrastructure for cooperation among Asean countries to facilitate international e-business.”

This does not mean international super-governmental bodies making decisions on the detail of security and authentication measures taken by national government, he emphasises. Rather, the aim is a framework within which people visiting participating countries or seeking access to secure premises or to perform secure transactions within and among them could expect similar authentication requirements.

He reports “significant interest” in the concept from Australian customs and passport control, They have asked Unisys to set up replicas of authentication technology already being deployed within the US, “and they have visited some of our customers”, Schaffner says.

Of commonly used biometrics, the iris pattern of the eye is the most powerfully discriminating identifier, suitable for high-security applications, he says.

Face recognition, while powerful, can be defeated comparatively easily by skilled makeup artists, he says. Faces are not unique anyway; someone may have clearance to enter a place where his/her identical twin may not. Digital fingerprint identification works on comparison of 80 points, whereas 266 points are compared in an iris pattern. Not everyone has fingerprints, he notes. Disabled people may not have sufficiently well-formed fingers and some occupations, involving chemicals, for example erode fingerprints. But almost everyone has a readable iris.

Biometric data provides a single powerful identifier and avoids the problem of having to remember a multiplicity of passwords or carry several tokens. But biometrics can, of course, be combined with these other methods for greater security. Speaking a password provides simultaneously the password and voice recognition, though voice, Schaffner says, is vulnerable to physiological change like having a cold.

Recent visitor Bill Bogart, from EDS, outlined how smartcard and fingerprint are used together for fast passenger clearance at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport (see Ban 'bad' websites says EDS security man).

Cost is a drawback to use of biometrics “at the high end”, for example in protecting dozens of entry points to buildings and sections of buildings, but fingerprint or face recognition to secure a single user’s laptop costs only about $US100. To equip a door to recognise a number of qualified employees runs at about $US3000, but even this is economical when it is set against employing a number of security guards. Some of those guards would typically be retained, but would simply watch access points through cameras from a central control point and be ready to deal physically with an emergency.

The personal limit of privacy is the other major inhibitor to wholesale use of biometrics and smartcards, Schaffner says. People fear “identity theft”, where a criminal steals cards and codes to assume their identity. The fear is often exaggerated, certainly where biometrics are involved, he says, “but while that perception is there, it has to be managed”,

In the post September 11 world, security and authentication have quickly risen to the top of systems integrators’ opportunity lists, he says.

There will inevitably be “snake-oil salesmen” making exaggerated promises for particular technologies, and it is important to have neutral bodies such as Australia’s government-funded Biometrics Institute, to pronounce on their actual relative merits.

The DoD and through it other US government agencies are particularly interested in enlisting the help of Australia and New Zealand in a common security infrastructure, he says, since our people are among the most travelled in the world, and we have a high level of technological literacy.

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