Biometrics is one of the fastest growing technologies in the access control industry. Advances in data processing, systems integration, biometric technology and smart card manufacturing makes identifying people much easier. These advances are taking place at break-neck speed, and it’s important that electrical contractors understand this lucrative market.

A powerful incentive driving government and large corporations, such as defense contractors, to employ it is

the ability to ensure identity at the door. In some instances, it’s simply not enough to use a card or personal identification number (PIN). Sometimes the stakes are so high that a more stringent ID method is necessary.

Traditional access control manufacturers use three basic methods to establish identity at the door. They are something that the user knows, something the user has, and one or more physical characteristics.

In truth, there’s a fourth, a combination of two or three of these. Examples include the use of an ID card or PIN in conjunction with a physical characteristic. The biometric component of the process is to compare a stored biometric template to a real-time scan of an eye, finger or some other body part.

The most common physical attributes used for determining personal identity include fingerprints, face, voice, hand, eye and skin. Each has unique advantages and disadvantages. But each seeks to identify users based on who they are instead of what they know or have on their person.

This advantage is driving biometrics over a number of vertical markets, such as healthcare, security and financial. In fact, according to a financial report titled The Global Biometrics Market, conducted by BBC Research of Farmington, Conn., the global biometric market, which is currently approximately $2.7 billion, is expected to reach $7.1 billion by 2012.

According to the report, “Demand within the biometrics market is driven by the steadily growing need for security in a multitude of areas within both the public and private sectors. Biometric technologies are primarily employed by the public sector. Government initiatives (both in the United States and abroad) mandate the use of biometric technology on an unprecedented scale with applications found in government, law enforcement, the military and the aviation transport market.”

The United States has enacted laws mandating the use of biometric technology, for example, to track legal immigrants and illegal entrants who have been apprehended multiple times.

The Real ID Act of 2005 provides regulations for state driver’s licenses. According to the act, its purpose is to prevent terrorists from abusing this nation’s asylum laws and to “…unify terrorism-related grounds for inadmissibility and removal, and to ensure expeditious construction of the San Diego border fence.” Many state legislators, however, have fought the Real ID requirements since Congress passed it in 2005.

Time-and-attendance is another biometrics market driver. Here, the application of biometric identifiers, in conjunction with electronic access control, enables management to document when employees clock in and out.

“What we’ve seen with biometrics in terms of early adoption is time and attendance. We have lots of people coming in and out of facilities, especially since it’s becoming more of a service-oriented environment. Here you get buddy punching, and putting a biometric in place helps curb this practice,” said Peter Boriskin, director of product management with Tyco Fire & Security’s Access Control and Video Systems unit, Boca Raton, Fla.

Traditional vs. biometric access

Until recently, the most common way access control systems determine identity has been through a keypad PIN or a card containing the user’s identification and other data. The problem with these methods, however, is they can be compromised.

Access cards, for example, can be lost or stolen, and an onlooker can observe a PIN. But a physical characteristic cannot easily be duplicated, stolen or observed.

The level of protection is even better when one or more traditional access technologies are used along with biometrics. Examples include a conventional Wiegand, magnetic stripe and a keypad.

“If you add another layer of authentication or two, like a PIN and a biometric identifier, you’re vastly improving the security at that portal. This will provide better protection for drug lockers in doctor’s offices and hospitals as well as radiological materials at universities. Honestly, the cost of not doing this far outweighs the cost of implementing the technology,” Boriskin said.

One of the drivers associated with this effort is Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (HSPD-12), issued on the heels of the Sept. 11 tragedy by President Bush. The security industry had been headed in that direction, having already developed hand geometry, fingerprint identification, retina/iris scanning and others, but HSPD-12 put that effort on a fast track.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in Gaithersburg, Md., was appointed the difficult task of creating common, open-source standards that manufacturers could use to take HSPD-12 from concept to practice. This effort, along with government mandates, has made it possible for many security equipment manufacturers to design products that will talk to each other over a common network.

Biometrics encourages convergence

One of the oldest methods of determining personal identity is the fingerprint. The FBI has used fingerprints as a means of physical identification since July 1, 1921, when Congress passed legislation allowing the FBI to take and use fingerprints. The actual beginning of fingerprint taking dates back to 1902 with the New York Civil Service Commission. The New York state prison system began using fingerprints as a means of identification in 1903.

It’s been found that people retain the same fingerprints throughout their entire lives. Today’s biometric access control systems make use of this fact by using the thumb or forefinger to identify valid users.

“We don’t use hand identification much at this point, as we believe that finger and iris identification systems perform the best. Big, bulky hand readers are less attractive to the client. As far as accuracy per cost goes, the finger offers the best cost point for a similar accuracy rate,” said Tim Miller, vice president, ASG Security/AccuTech Systems, Beltsville, Md.

Another use for fingerprint identification technology involves access to data. In this case, a small finger reader pad is installed at a computer, and a user must place his finger or thumb before he or she will be allowed to access the data on it or the network to which it is attached.

“It’s inexpensive, and it’s a great verifier, which is what these systems are used for: to verify the identity of the person at the read location. We’ve used it as a convenient means to arm and disarm security systems as well as to establish login rights on a PC. It’s relatively unobtrusive for the client and inexpensive to implement,” Miller said.

Other biometric technologies

Among other biometric identifiers is enrollment using face or hand geometry. This involves taking pictures of the body member and analyzing it according to predetermined criteria. A mathematical template then is derived, digitized and stored in memory. Often, several images are taken, creating a range of mathematical identification criteria. The average then is used to compare to a real-time scan as it occurs at the door.

The eye is commonly used to determine identity—either the iris or retina. Experts say no two eyes are alike. So this biometric technology is fast becoming popular. Like the hand or face, several images of the iris are taken. The average then is used to determine identity at the door in real time. Airports and government contractors are two significant users of eye-based biometric readers.

Recent advancements in biometrics also include the use of human skin. This is accomplished using a special processing algorithm capable of analyzing patterns in the dermis. The result is what some experts call a “skinprint.” Vein biometric scans also can be used for the same purpose. Analysis is much like the fingerprint, face or eye. Images are processed and converted into mathematical templates that are then used to validate user identity.

In the future, one of the most powerful biological identifiers governments and high-risk corporations may elect to use is that of a person’s genetic composition. Readers, containing processing chips already on the market, can analyze a person’s genetic makeup, logging a number of elements that act to distinguish one person from another.

Systems integration will continue to play a growing role in unifying physical and logical biometric-based systems with vertical markets, such as healthcare, banking and government. Although there is contention within the security industry on the issue of biometrics, it is a technology that is growing by leaps and bounds. Low-voltage companies who intend to be players in the modern access control market will have to embrace it and learn how to use it.

COLOMBO is a 32-year veteran in the security and life safety markets. He currently is director with FireNetOnline.com and a nationally recognized trade journalist located in East Canton, Ohio.