Striving to do the right thing

Facial and fingerprint biometrics are likely to lead the way, but iris, voice and multi-modal technologies are expected to grow rapidly, says Isabelle Moeller, chief executive of the Biometrics Institute


Identity is everything in the modern world, so it is no surprise we have so many ways of verifying it and protecting it. PINs, passwords, passports, even keys – these are the traditional means we have relied on to make sure someone is who they say they are.

But what if we could get rid of them all tomorrow and replace them with biometric solutions, allowing us to verify identities, not through a token or secret code, but from distinct and immutable features of our own bodies. This can bring us to a freer, safer and fairer society, but only if we can implement it in a responsible and consultative manner.

The Biometrics Institute was formed 11 years ago, when biometric technologies were still at an early stage, in response to an industry need for unbiased information, knowledge-sharing, networking and education for biometrics users. Users comprise the core membership of the institute, alongside a secondary tier of vendors, systems integrators and researchers.

The mission was defined by Dr Ted Dunstone when he founded the institute in Australia: to be an independent group advising organisations and individuals to make informed decisions on the use of biometrics. Since then the institute has expanded into Europe, but our mission has remained unchanged.

Understanding and information remain crucial, particularly given changing societal attitudes towards privacy. People who would think nothing of uploading photos and intimate personal details to social networking sites often blanche at the thought of giving the same level of disclosure of private information.

This can bring us to a freer, safer and fairer society, but only if we can implement it in a responsible and consultative manner

But as information technology has become ubiquitous and the digital, networked component of our identities has grown larger, the case for biometrics has grown stronger. It is crucial we know both the risks and the opportunities this technology presents so we can make the best decisions about its use.

Biometrics is increasingly relevant for the “real world”. The tragic events of September 11th, when terrorists attacked the US homeland, made accurate identification of individuals a top-security priority for governments worldwide.

Australia led the way in the deployment of biometrics in border-control services. The system, known as Smartgate, succeeded in both increasing security and allowing customs and border control to process passengers more efficiently.

Since then ePassport gates and biometrically enabled passports have seen a dramatic rise in adoption.  Heathrow, Gatwick and several other major UK airports now use ePassport gates that can compare the facial characteristics of passengers with their passport photo. The first such gate went live at Manchester Airport in 2008. As part of wider border-control efforts, Biometric Residence Permits were introduced for foreign nationals living in the UK.

The applications for biometrics don’t stop at the border. After the London riots of 2011, politicians began to openly explore the viability of biometric facial-recognition technology to identify rioters so they could be punished later. More happily, biometric access control systems helped ensure the 2012 Olympics could operate both smoothly and securely.

The consumer market for biometrics is also developing rapidly. The processing power and built-in cameras of tablets and smartphones make them ideal platforms for biometric identifiers, and big players are taking note. Last year Apple purchased the fingerprint-sensor technology developer Authentec for a reported $356 million.

In our 2012 survey, the institute’s members identified the increased deployment of biometric technologies in border control as the most significant development of the past 12 months, but flagged the increased penetration of biometric technology into everyday life as the most exciting prospect for the next five years.

As biometrics are increasingly deployed on social-media forums, smart devices, and even schools and polling stations, the growth potential for this industry has expanded exponentially. New means of identification are also coming online; facial and fingerprint are still expected to be the most widely used biometric standards, but iris, voice and multi-modal technologies are also expected to grow rapidly.

The Biometrics Institute strives constantly to address the needs of this fast-paced and global industry by providing topical information to those looking to understand the possibilities, limits and practicalities of implementing biometric technology. To do this we have maintained continuous engagement with both industry players and end-users.

This is reflected in the way our membership has grown. We have 125 organisational memberships, representing the majority of government organisations in Australia and New Zealand, and elsewhere. This includes organisations, such as the Australian Attorney-General’s Department, Communications Electronic Securities Group (CESG UK), Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs, FBI, London’s Metropolitan Police, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence, National Australia Bank and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

It will be interesting to see where the industry is moving next, but with consumers now deciding more and more what technology needs to deliver to them, it will be even more important to help shape the industry by informing users and vendors about the responsible use of biometrics. These and other issues will be discussed at the Biometrics Technology Showcase – Security and Integrity: Trust at Every Level, to be held in London on June 27.

For more information about the Biometrics Institute please visit http://www.biometricsinstitute.org or contact Isabelle Moeller, chief executive, Biometrics Institute: manager@biometricsinstitute.org; telephone +44 207 581 4827

Isabelle Moeller was appointed chief executive of the Biometrics Institute in 2011 after nine years as general manager. Formerly she was a senior conference manager at The Economist. The Biometrics Institute is a not-for-profit membership organisation with offices in London and Sydney.