Myth buster

Biometrics is a technology whose time has come.  But, argues Will McMeechan, lead business developer at Nationwide Building Society, that does not stop a lot of rubbish being talked about it.

McMeechan has had more firsthand exposure to biometrics projects than almost anyone in the IT industry – he has seen when the technology has been applied when immature and deeply flawed; he has seen flawless implementations stopped in their tracks for misguided ‘political’ reasons. He has also seen projects provide business paybacks on an unquestionable scale.

At Enterprise Security 2006, he put the longstanding question, ‘Are biometrics a myth or a mature technology?‘ once and for all to rest.

The reason: the number of biometrics success stories is now providing irrefutable proof. Those may not be very evident in the UK (where there

is still a deeply held suspicion of physical-based security) but their number elsewhere is now so significant, and the use of biometrics so varied, that there is little doubt that in two or three years’ time, the question McMeechan is asked constantly today will seem absurd.

The scope of biometrics – the physical or behavioural characteristics of an individual which can be manipulated to produce a unique identifier – is well explored. The most common physical biometrics – fingerprint, iris pattern and face – sit alongside the behavioural examples – signature, voice and gait.

But the myths associated with each of these (with the possible exception of gait) has often held back serious uptake. Hollywood – from James Bond to Minority Report – has played its part in establishing the mythology, says McMeechan, as have the media with specious stories about security systems being fooling by gelatin copies of someone’s print or the use of an amputated finger getting a thief into a bank vault.

There is also a well-fanned fire of mistrust. The public perception that biometrics are the precursor to some kind of brave new world of widespread ID theft prejudges almost every public trial of biometric technologies. At the same time, the widely exaggerated claims made by vendors that their technologies are some kind of a security panacea has build the disillusion even higher when their perfectly adequate products prove disappointing in inappropriate roles.

But the reality today is that biometrics are already in widespread use globally in mass deployments, from the European passport service to the US department of immigration.

And with good reason: The business benefits are becoming obvious. They provide a secure digital representation of a feature that can be easily integrated with most mainstream business applications.

The technology may be now mature, and the number of deployments – and planned deployments – large enough to trigger a tipping point for biometrics, but McMeechan knows that over-expectation is still a danger. “Biometrics are not a panacea, but a very useful weapon in the security war against fraudsters.”

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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