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 Sunday, 29 December, 2002, 09:06 GMT
Eye scans unlock the future
Iris scanning security system for computers
Biometrics is being used to increase computer security
Kevin Anderson

Password cracking programs can break a lot of easily guessed phrases in less than a minute.

And heightened security of airports, borders and sensitive facilities is the focus of a world newly awakened to the threat of global terrorism.

Countries and companies want security that is harder to fool than systems that rely on passwords and Personal Identification Numbers (Pin).

Enter biometrics. The highly hyped technology relies on physical unique characteristics such as fingerprints, facial patterns or the pattern of the iris in the eye to make sure users are who they say they are.

Rush of interest

"September 11 brought the biometric marketplace and their technologies to the forefront," said Richard Ouaknine, with the International Biometric Group.

"Everyone realised globally that there is a greater need for improved security and additional methods of security aside from traditional passwords, tokens and so forth," he added.

Biometrics is an industry in its infancy, worth between $240m to $400m, according to Brian Ruttenbur, senior vice president and equity research analyst of Morgan Keegan & Company.

Following the attacks of 11 September, stocks in biometrics companies rose 130%, he said.

Both the US and UK Governments are exploring biometrics as a way to increase security of computer systems, as well as at airports, military facilities and government offices.

The Home Office in the UK is looking into systems that speed passage through immigration.

Biometric locks even guard the offices of US Vice President Dick Cheney.

Eye IDs

JetStream iris recognition system
The JetStream system was part of a test at Heathrow

The public will soon be seeing biometrics systems at airports and in enhanced travel documents that the US Government is requiring by 2004.

EyeTicket's JetStream system, which uses the pattern of the iris in the eye for identification, was part of a test programme at London's Heathrow Airport.

The hope is that the system will speed passage of overseas visitors through immigration, cutting the time for processing from an average of 10 minutes to 10 seconds.

Biometrics company Saflink has a fingerprint recognition system coupled with a proximity sensor.

Computer users sign-in to their computers by scanning their fingers. Once they step away from their terminal, the system automatically locks the computer down.


Right now, it is a battle not only between rival companies but also rival technologies.

Fingerprint, facial recognition and fingerprint scanning are just a few technologies vying for government funding.

Fingerprint scanner
Fingerprinting associated with criminal cases
Iris scanning advocates say that their system is difficult to trick because of the complexity of the iris.

They say that the system can even detect false iris patterns printed on contact lenses because of visual artefacts left by the inkjet technology used to print such lenses.

But privacy advocates question the accuracy of various biometric technologies and have voiced concerns about the how information linked to biometric identifiers will be used.

Some people have been resistant to fingerprint scanning as it is associated with criminal activity.

Facial scanning got a black eye when it was used without alerting game goers at the Superbowl, the championship game of the National Football League in the US.

But biometrics boosters say that Americans are now willing to trade some of their privacy for increased security.

See also:

08 Nov 02 | Technology
31 May 02 | Science/Nature
21 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
17 May 02 | Science/Nature
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