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Biometrics reach maturity

The world biometrics market has expanded exponentially
The world biometrics market has expanded exponentially
The term ‘biometrics’ quite literally means the measurement of life
The term ‘biometrics’ quite literally means the measurement of life

Thanks largely to its widespread adoption in the criminal justice and private sector security domain, the world biometrics market has expanded exponentially. Annual growth is forecast at 33% between the years 2000 and 2010. Europe is expected to have the fastest growing biometrics market by 2010, and it is evident that biometrics companies are emerging as key contributors to the prosperity and growth of the UK technology industry.

The term ‘biometrics’ quite literally means the measurement of life. In this sense, biometrics are nothing new. They have been around for millennia, as it has always been important to assure that people are who they say they are.

The novelty of current-day biometrics, rather, lies in the technology that underpins them – the systems that have been developed to verify someone’s identity to a degree of accuracy which until now, has been impossible. Just as these systems have been developed and perfected, biometric technologies are coming to the fore as the new ‘gold standard’ of identity assurance.

Who you are

This does not mean that biometrics are the holy grail, only that they present a significant advance in securing the identity of an individual. The distinction becomes clearer when contrasting biometric and non-biometric solutions, such as ‘chip and pin’.

Commonly used with debit and credit cards, chip and pin devices assume the correctness of the cardholder’s identity in two ways: through what they have and what they know. In other words, the combination of owning a card and knowing its pin number is accepted as a token of the cardholder’s identity.

A biometric solution, in comparison, provides a third layer of security in that it locks down the cardholder’s identity. In addition to ‘what you have’ and ‘what you know’, ‘who you are’ becomes the operative question.

In the case of chip and pin the ‘who you are’ might come in the form of a finger print scan or iris scan used in conjunction. In this sense, biometrics should not be understood as a standalone solution, but a component that enhances existing security measures.

The Intellect Association for Biometrics (IAfB) is the UK body that represents companies developing these technologies and solutions and has a vital role to play in today’s technology market. A review of the Association’s activities since its launch in July 2007, in addition to a look at its plans for the future, will shed some light on how the biometrics market has developed and how it will look in the future.

The IAfB’s inception one year ago was timely, enabling the industry to address this growing market in a cohesive and co-ordinated way. Following a common industry line has proved useful in educating industry and policy makers as to the value of biometrics.

The IAfB has studied the use of biometrics against a backdrop of public concern around surveillance and civil liberties. A seminar on CCTV, for instance, has rightly prompted a debate about these important issues and helped to ensure the industry’s compliance with data protection legislation. While cultural attitudes to biometrics will change over time, it is clear that the industry can now take steps to promote responsible use. This includes building security and privacy settings into applications during the design phase.

Good Value

The industry has also been encouraged to come together and ensure that policymakers and customers are well informed about the actual value of biometrics.

At a time when Government is under growing pressure to simultaneously modernise public services and reduce spending, there has also been a common imperative to show that the benefits of biometrics outweigh the costs. To this effect, the IAfB has fostered close ties with the UK Border Agency and Home Office. The group’s bimonthly speaker-programme has highlighted the contribution of biometrics to the success of the UK Visas and eBorders programmes, both of which promise to deliver greater security to the citizen. This engagement has helped tease out the lessons learned and what room exists for improvement.

Maintaining these commercial functions has helped to accommodate a UK biometrics market that is becoming larger and more consolidated by the day. In terms of size, there is evidence that small and medium sized biometrics companies have witnessed a 50% average annual growth rate over the last two years.

The biometrics marketplace is also characterised by mergers and acquisitions, as key players such as L-1 Identity. Solutions have added smaller, highly innovative companies to their own ranks.

So far the sector has been doing well, enjoying commercial success and working hard to educate the public about the benefits of biometrics. However, it is important to anticipate the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. So what are these exactly?

First of all, the Home Office’s National Identity Scheme is underway, with biometrics playing an important part. Facial and fingerprint recognition, it is hoped, will do much to prove a person’s identity and prevent cases of identity theft that have become ever more sophisticated and widespread in recent years.

There are also lots of new opportunities for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to grow in the biometrics sector. For example, by promoting biometrics to senior decision makers in the health and construction industries, biometrics businesses in the small to medium sized constituency can significantly improve their business prospects.

Activities such as this will bolster this technology’s reputation as an instrument to reduce fraud activity, ensure health and safety and enhance security.

Best practice

In terms of the technology and its implementation, the biometrics market has reached a mature stage. The previous decade has seen a marked improvement in the accuracy of the algorithms used and the quality of enrolment, both of which are determining factors in the technology’s success.

Good examples of best practice can be found in the construction industry, where face, hand geometry, finger and iris biometrics are already used to great effect. These systems have helped to reduce fraudulent wage activity, streamline wage processing and provide health and safety information.

The UK enjoys a competitive advantage in this area and is well placed to lead the global market.

Recent public initiatives include the rollout of mobile fingerprint based systems that enable border enforcement officers to verify the identity of suspects. This follows on from the very successful trials that were run in connection with the National Policing Improvement Agency’s Lantern Project last year.

By equipping police officers with handheld biometric devices, the Lantern project makes it possible for them to swiftly check a person’s identity in an operational environment. This has increased officer safety as support and back-up becomes more accessible and has helped officers identify wanted or dangerous criminals. Also, there are trials at two UK airports of facial recognition systems to track passports and enable faster traveller throughput. Lastly, the frequent flier scheme, using iris recognition, has been in use for a while at Heathrow airport.

More than ever before, the business application of technology is shaping the reality of our everyday lives. As part of this reality, biometrics must be utilised effectively and responsibly in areas where they can add value to business, consumers and the public sector.

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