By Dominic Bailey
BBC News, at Biometrics 2006
Keys, cards, passports and PINs could soon be a thing of the past as biometric technology makes our bodies the only passwords we need.
Some systems can pick out and identify faces from a crowd
Biometric systems - which identify a person by their unique physical or behavioural features - are rapidly being designed and applied to many aspects of our everyday lives.
The main biometrics are based on features of the face, iris or finger, but other systems use anything from the veins in a hand to the way an individual speaks.
The UK is one of 27 countries signed up to the US Visa Waiver Program, which demands that all passports issued after 26 October 2006 must contain a machine readable chip with the passport holder's details and a biometric identifier, such as a digital photograph of the holder.
The authorities say this is primarily to beat passport fraud, and a security officer will still compare the digital photo with physical photo and the passport holder.
But technology already exists for checks to be automated - a passenger will look into a camera at border control and a computer will check the map of key points on the face with those recorded in the passport chip, confirming their identity.
This is just one example of how biometrics are being applied. Firms are developing the technology to be used in anything from hand-held devices to building access, street surveillance and the "war on terror".
Access - doing away with employees' cards and keys and the risk of them being lost, stolen or misused - is a major focus for the industry, many of whose companies were exhibiting at the Biometrics 2006 conference in London last week.
A4 Vision are among those taking the 2D facial technology being used in the biometric passports - also known as ePassports - to the next dimension.
Within seconds, the system maps 40,000 points on the face, based on the geometric features curvature of the face, slope of the nose etc., to create a 3D image - which is then stored with personal details and access permissions.
At the Pictet and Cie Swiss bank in Geneva, for example, registered employees need only look at the camera on the security turnstiles to be allowed into the building.
Facial recognition can also be used to monitor individuals remotely - whether in crowds, clubs or public gatherings. Some systems pick out faces in a crowd and compare them to a stored database.
Three dimensional images can be created and stored in seconds
CrossMatch's FaceCheck is being used in casinos in Europe to identify unwanted or banned customers, and even gambling addicts who want to be stopped when temptation gets the better of them.
"It is not as good as iris or fingerprint but it is good enough to alert security who can then do another check," says Thomas Buss, of CrossMatch.
US military working in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cuba, Bosnia and other areas of conflict are already using portable iris enrolment and recognition devices to record and identify suspects.
The US defence department has now put in a $10m (£6m) order for the latest multi-modal devices which incorporate iris, finger and face biometrics.
"The soldiers carry them in their packs. And if they kick down a door in Falluja or wherever, they can line the suspects up and check their IDs to see if they are on the database," says Tim Johnson, of Securimetrics.
"Every prison camp in Iraq is using them for incoming and outgoing prisoners. It is a useful tool - they can see if someone has been arrested before, where they were and what they had done."
The US military use biometric systems to record suspects in Iraq (Photo: Cpl Spencer M Murphy)
The iris systems were used to enrol election workers and recruits for the Iraqi police force. Similar systems are also being used in the US in prisons, military bases and civil plants.
There have been concerns that finger biometric systems can be problematic for people with feint prints, or wet or dry hands. They have also been shown to be susceptible to fraud as prints could be easily copied - a Japanese scientist famously used jelly sweets to reproduce a machine-readable fingerprint.
But technology to secure systems moves on.
New Mexico-based Lumidigm generates fingerprints by using wavelengths of light to probe fingers for information both at the surface and beneath the skin. It highlights characteristics such as skin layers and collagen fibres that are part of what makes a fingerprint unique.
Current technologies have an error rate of up to 16% but Lumidigm says its technology reduces this to less than 1%. They also have a "liveness" detection to avoid the Hollywood scenario of digits being cut from hands to be used by criminals.
US wants visitors to have machine-readable passports
In the real world, the sensors are being used in a theme park in the US to allow customers to access rides and attractions according to their tickets.
Behind some public reluctance to give fingerprints is the belief that prints will be kept on file and stored and could then be passed on. Most companies insist the sample print is never kept - it is encoded and made into a template or algorithm so future scans compare code with code, not print with print.
Dr Leopold Gallner, of ekey Biometric Systems, believes biometrics can be applied to the everyday uses such as opening your front door.
Keyholes can be replaced with finger sensors that can register up to 99 fingers - enough for a family or small business.
"You don't need cards or keys, you have your finger with you all the time," says Dr Leopold. "Most people store their left and right fingerprint in case they have an accident or, as usually happens, you get home carrying bags and you have the wrong hand free."
Other aspects of what make one person physiologically different to another are also being tapped into - from the veins in your hand to how you speak.
VoiceVault's voice recognition system is based on a customer's unique voice print - made up from 117 characteristics of vocal tract, sinuses nasal cavity and trachea.
"It enables identification over the phone or internet - people are fed up with PINs and passwords," says VoiceVault's head of marketing Nigel Phillips.
He says speech recognition is based on what someone is saying, but voice recognition recognises who is saying it. The unique voiceprint means the system can reject a recording or impersonation, but will recognise someone's voice even if they have a cold or are sounding a bit rough.
The system is being used by ABN AMRO bank in the Netherlands to make telephone banking more secure and by farmers in Ireland to replenish stock by phone.
Some of the systems are still at the development stage, but still attract interest and investment from governments and organisations.
Six PhD students from the University of Twente are developing the Smart-gun for the Dutch police. The system uses pressure pattern recognition to ascertain the way a person grips a gun to verify the user and allow its use.
Dutch police are interested in development of a smart gun
Ilean Buhan says the idea emerged from the figures that around 16% of US police officers killed in the line of duty were shot with their own weapon.
"This system means that someone who grabs an officer's gun can't use it to shoot its owner," she said. "It also makes it safer to store the gun at home as anyone else who picks it up - like a child - won't be able to use it."
Exhibition organiser Mark Lockie says the events of 11 September accelerated what was happening in the industry.
"What's happening is that there's been a lot of research and development taking place on the standards front, on developing better sensors - they're more accurate," he said. "Commercial organisations are now looking at the technology, and saying 'Well, if it's good enough for the government, then maybe it's good enough for us'."
Dr Fred Preston, of Motorola, says biometrics will be used more and more in law enforcement but also in everyday applications. He says acceptance of the user is key.
"It has to be easy to use and possible to use and the user has to be willing to use it as well," he says. "It will come with time and familiarity - a lot like Chip and Pin."