Biometrics gets to work as public fears subside

After a relatively slow start, practical applications of biometrics are growing in popularity as take-up in the private and public sectors gathers pace in parts of the UK

The impetus behind biometric technologies is this: who people are is more reliable than what they say or what they hold. People can steal keys, forget passwords and misdiagnose medical symptoms, meaning security, payment platforms and health systems run at sub-optimal levels if they rely on the testimony of human beings.

People can lie, but as yet their physiology cannot. It’s why Scotland Yard got so excited more than 100 years ago when it realised fingerprints held the key to locking up criminals and why soon after criminals got so excited when they realised they could wear gloves.

But in the ensuing century biometrics has paved a slow road and only in recent years are its wider applications starting to transition from theory to practical reality. One barrier has been the cost, which is falling, while another is public frostiness, which is thawing.

This area of biotech could be about to take off in a very big way, with thumb-print identification, retinal scans, voice, face and even gait recognition systems becoming ubiquitous in airports, government buildings, schools and hospitals everywhere. But, as of right now, take up is patchy.

In the health sector, for example, biometrics is having a huge impact at the consumer level, with smart gadgets telling people how fast their hearts are beating among other things, but not so well institutionally in hospitals and GP practices, which could be better connected.

What's the hottest space in biometrics this year

For obvious reasons the aviation industry is a front runner in bio-security trials, which if fully successful would prove a thorn in the side of terrorists, smugglers and people accessing countries on false documentation with plans to melt into the populace.

“Airports around the world have successfully completed trials where biometrics enable passengers to traverse the departure process on a fully self-service basis and we have been involved in some of these,” says Nick Whitehead, head of strategic services at Atkins.

“We have been involved in the deployment of biometric technology, predominantly using facial recognition. The technology has been implemented for access control purposes, both for managing workers on to and off sites, and securing airport passenger arrivals and departures.”

Heathrow and Manchester airports use facial recognition while Gatwick has installed iris scanners; two methods, notes Mr Whitehead, that can be used to solve the same set of problems. And while self-service is not adopted widely in UK airports, it is common in parts of Europe, the Middle East and the Far East.

There has been considerable global growth in the use of biometrics over the past few years

Though most people passing through these airports don’t know it, a central objection to biometric security, the old “big brother” complaint, is being side-stepped. The data captured is single use, wiped clean after the plane lands safely and everyone gets off intact.

Other sectors as diverse as schools and construction sites are dabbling in biometrics, and many technology buyers report that benefits are outweighing the cost for the first time. Yet the potential upside is almost incalculable for organisations big and small.

Take the frankly colossal example of the NHS, currently bursting at the seams because so many people are showing up at accident and emergency departments with problems that could be remedied under non-emergency conditions.

In future, biometric instruments – perhaps bands, implants or home fittings – could tell people the extent of their medical need so health professionals don’t have to. It would work the other way too, by convincing hardened war babies that a trip to hospital is not a form of imposition, but a medical requirement.

“There has been considerable global growth in the use of biometrics over the past few years thanks to both government-driven identification programmes as well as increased consumer acceptability driven by access to smartphone technology,” says Ajay Bhalla, president of enterprise safety and security at MasterCard.

“Looking at Asia-Pacific, it’s more and more common to find ATM machines with biometric readers such as thumb-print functionality, so today it’s not uncommon to find biometrics in our everyday lives even in forms beyond this,” he says.

Dan Bachenheimer, director at Accenture Public Safety, says the roll-out of finger or thumb-print recognition will be hastened because its inclusion in consumer technology is making it more palatable to an initially sceptical audience. On a smartphone, you can opt for fingerprint ID. You try it, you like it; you accept it when the same process stands between you and access to a nursery, hospital, borough council or prison visit.

People who enjoy the convenience of secure point-of-sale technology in their phones will appreciate the same protection when they travel abroad or withdraw cash from a bank. The snowball effect of this should quicken adoption by groups across the whole economy.

“With advances in biometric technologies and improvements in IT infrastructure, there is a growing acceptance of biometric recognition technologies in our daily lives, and this acceptance will grow further with time,” says Mr Bachenheimer.

“Today, the use of biometric technology on smartphones and other consumer devices has bolstered public acceptance and familiarity with the technology far more than any previous industry deployments combined.”

If consumers need warming up, people working in corporate IT are already hot and sold. This is a fertile environment for biometrics. Data security is top of the agenda because most new information companies create is digital, not stored in filing cabinets, but in banks of servers which require several layers of security.

We have seen the strongest uptake of biometrics in the education sector – it is already successfully in place across a number of schools, colleges and universities in the UK

“Biometric technologies are also playing an increasing role in securing company IT systems, providing access to the right people,” Mr Bachenheimer adds. “We are seeing biometrics play a growing role in identity and access management solutions, adding the third factor of ‘something you are’ to ‘something you have’, such as smart cards, and ‘something you know’, such as passwords.”

For years, the construction industry has been plagued by buddy-punching, where pals clock in and out of work for each other to fraudulently claim pay. Now bosses have the opportunity to eradicate the practice while at the same time improving conditions for workers.

Hottest areas in biometrics

“Biometric technology for workforce management data collection devices can be useful because it identifies and validates an employee’s true identity,” says Neil Pickering, director at Kronos. “For the employer, this is used to help avoid costly buddy-punching while protecting an employee’s personal information.

“It also allows employees to access personal information and self-service features directly from the time clock, including checking their work schedule, verifying their time cards, accessing messages, and even putting in a holiday request.”

But it doesn’t stop there, technology is also turning up in sectors where you least expect it. “We have seen the strongest uptake of biometrics in the education sector,” says Jamie Coombes, at print and IT provider Altodigital. “It is already successfully in place across a number of schools, colleges and universities in the UK.

“It is used in a wide variety of contexts from electronic catering, where students can ‘pay’ for food and drink using a fingerprint scan, to libraries or within a school’s broader IT infrastructure, interlinked with a roaming pull-printing solution.”

After years of hype, the technology behind biometrics is finally catching up, giving a real opportunity to upgrade health, financial and security systems across industry. Now the public are taking to the idea too, it’s only a matter of time.