A handy solution for biometrics
Tim Compston, of SecurityNewsDesk, finds out that there is plenty of life left for hand and finger-based solutions in the biometrics world.
With all the hype surrounding iris, facial recognition, and other biometric techniques, perhaps it is time to take a step back and assess if there is still room in the access control equation for identification related to a person's hands, whether that be fingerprint or finger vein. We find out what the current footprint is in the marketplace for these techniques. Where, for example, does tried and tested fingerprint recognition have the edge over the new kids on the biometrics block? Is the roll-out of sophisticated 3D technology acting as a shot-in-the-arm for this approach? How does adding a new dimension stack-up in the cost of ownership and accuracy stakes?
Weighing up the state of play of fingerprint technology with Blake Kozak, Principal Analyst for Security and Building Technologies at IHS, he is well acquainted with the market dynamics here: "I have been researching the market for a little over seven years now and fingerprint, in nearly all regions, remains the primary technology that relates to biometrics. Other technologies like face recognition, iris, and finger vein are starting to gain traction but fingerprint continues to dominate in terms of volume. For EMEA we estimated that roughly 90 percent plus of the units shipped for door access control in 2014 were fingerprint." Asked why, in his opinion, fingerprint is still so dominant he responds: "Well for fingerprint it remains a less expensive technology with a reader in the order of $300 - $500 whereas for facial and iris we are talking about $2,500 to $4,000 for those types of models. Fingerprint has also been around the longest."
Looking to the future, for applications like datacentres Kozak spotlights a trend towards what is referred to as 'multimodal' or dual-technology biometrics: "You could have iris and maybe fingerprint together, for example." The shift towards multimodal biometrics is something which Philip Verner, Regional Sales Director, EMEA at CEM Systems has also picked up on: "The new thing now is looking at a biometric and maybe adding a second biometric to enhance the overall solution."
Speaking more generally, Verner acknowledges that there is always a trade-off between reliability in terms of 'will it read me right every time?’ or ‘will it give me a false reading?': "Iris has always been more reliable than fingerprint but the downside is that there are less suppliers, it is much more expensive, not as easy to use, and not as quick," he says. Verner suggests that fingerprint is still more heavily deployed because it is 'tried and tested' whereas there are plenty of 'upstarts' coming into the biometric field that sometimes get accepted but in other cases simply fade away, with the technology being discontinued.
John Davies, the Managing Director and owner at TDSi, agrees with the analysis of Blake Kozak from IHS that there is plenty of life left in fingerprint technology: "It features quite prominently in what we are doing now and will do in future product developments. The price has come down a lot since we first got involved back in 2003/4, fingerprint is much more accurate and the readers store more templates." Davies adds that TDSi’s own range of fingerprint readers are in the frame for further development over the next 12 to 18 months. This underscores the company's confidence in the technology. On the access control software front, Davies says that TDSi is also continuing to invest in integrating with other manufacturers' fingerprint offerings.
Focusing on the ever-growing spectrum of applications for fingerprint technology, Davies reckons that this is very broad indeed: "Now you are seeing fingerprint technology not just in access control but in time and attendance applications, in vending applications in schools for example - in order that 'little Johnny' can't be bullied for his dinner money - and to turn on mobile phones, with Apple one of the first to do this."
For his part Rob Sands, Technical director at Videx, feels that fingerprint readers are well suited to scenarios where there are issues around users sharing an access code, lending proximity fobs and cards, or where cards are regularly lost or stolen. On the downside, he admits that fingerprint readers are not, necessarily, as vandal resistant as perhaps a proximity reader or a coded keypad might be.
Asked about whether the introduction of 3D touchless finger scanning technology and other hand-related techniques are going to take a slice of the market from more traditional fingerprint readers, Sands says that, at the moment, capacitance and optical fingerprint access control are very well established, although he reckons it is likely that other biometric technologies will join in this success as they mature in the commercial sector.
A blueprint for security
One vendor with a finger firmly on the pulse of biometrics for access control is Swiss manufacturer TBS (Touchless Biometric Systems) which is promoting, what is claimed to be, a more accurate and hygienic solution. When I spoke to the company's CEO, Alex Zarrabi, he told me that, in his view, the beauty of the 3D touchless finger scanning technology which TBS is trailblazing is the way it captures the highest possible quantity of fingerprint details: "Instead of a small central fingerprint with 2D, 3D takes a large scan of the finger." To put some numbers on this, Zarrabi's colleague Philippe Niederhauser, TBS' Head of Sales & Marketing, reported at IFSEC 2015 that 3D actually gathers about five times more information - thanks to its multiple sensors - compared to the more traditional 2D optical approach. The upshot of ramping up the volume of data gathered is, according to Niederhauser, that it is better able to cope with people having 'bad' fingerprints, dust on their fingers or wet fingers.
Pressed on whether moving to 3D is to the detriment of processing speed, Niederhauser acknowledged that there is a slight change but that an identification time of roughly two-and-a-half seconds is perfectly workable and, on the other hand, it is possible to handle a much bigger database, with TBS' largest stretching to 25,000 people.
Returning to the thoughts of Alex Zarrabi, he was of the opinion that the greater attention to detail delivered by 3D unlocks a heightened level of accuracy in operation: "A bigger amount of information gives a more secure identification." Added to this, Zarrabi was keen to emphasise that, by implementing 3D, there are hardly any 'exceptions'. During our interview Zarrabi also pointed to other practical, cost-of-ownership, benefits that end-users can unlock when taking the touchless 3D route. To illustrate his point, Zarrabi cited the scenario of 2D working in an airport where every two hours people may have to clean the associated devices to keep them operational whereas, by contrast, for the latest 3D technology hardly any maintenance is required.
Considering the vertical markets where this 'added dimension' to biometrics is gaining the most traction, Philippe Niederhauser from TBS, pointed out that an ideal application is for datacentres where, given the value of what is stored, security remains high on the agenda.
In a different vein
When it comes to explaining the intricacies of finger vein technology, Ravi Ahluwalia the Deputy General Manager for The Information Systems Group (EMEA) at Hitachi - the company which pioneered this technology - is well placed to offer some valuable insights. As a starting point, Ahluwalia is keen to outline the story of the origins of Hitachi's approach to finger vein: "The technology came out of our medical research back in the 1990s." Essentially, according to Ahluwalia, the technology works by shining infrared light into the finger that reacts with the haemoglobin in the blood: "This causes you to get a visual blood pattern and a picture is taken of that. An algorithm is then used to digitise it so you end up with a template." He says that commercial production of finger vein readers stretches as far back as 2002 for Japan and then the technology was taken further afield to, predominantly, Northern Europe and the United States around 2005/6.
So where does finger vein sit in the biometrics scheme of things? Well, Ahluwalia explains that finger vein scores highly on accuracy and usability: "People are all very familiar with fingerprint but the advantage with finger vein is that the accuracy is much higher and can be compared to something like iris which is very expensive in comparison."
According to Ahluwalia the price point isn’t going to break the bank in fact being similar to a 'high-end fingerprint': "We are in the same sort of space as a couple of hundred dollars fingerprint reader, we are certainly not talking in the thousands." An added attraction of finger vein over fingerprint, for instance, says Ahluwalia, is that there are many countries with privacy regulations like France, Italy and the Netherlands, where fingerprint simply can't be used so openly, they have to gain permission: “With finger vein you can't leave it anywhere and it can't be extracted from your finger. If someone chops your finger-off the veins collapse so they basically can't get a picture,” he adds.
Regarding business strategy, Ahluwalia says that Hitachi is really focusing its efforts around finger vein in the enterprise space and references vertical markets such as the finance sector - which is proving to be the biggest - the telco and retail sectors to prove his point: "In Japan we are very strong in the ATM market where you can use your card and place your finger, and this is checked against a template stored on your card, so there is no need for a PIN. Already 80% of all ATMs in Japan use our technology and we have deployed the same proposition on ATMs in Poland and Turkey." More recently, Ahluwalia reveals that Hitachi is now working with Barclays Bank to provide the bank's customers with a finger vein reader so they are able to log in through a portal and digitally sign transactions.
Returning to traditional fingerprints, they are also the heart of identity checks at European borders. A case in point is the VIS (Visa Information System), a European Commission initiative that launched in October 2011 which allows Schengen States to exchange visa data. As part of this 10 fingerprints, and a digital photographs, are being collected from all persons applying for a visa with the biometric information, and the data on the visa application form, being recorded in a secure central database. This is opening up opportunities for solutions providers. Back in March it was announced, for instance, that Morpho (Safran) had signed an agreement with the Lithuanian government to supply 145 Morpho TOP optical fingerprint scanners to help process visa requests which authorities in the Schengen area will then be able to access.
So to round off, these are certainly exciting times for biometrics and, at least for now fingerprint appears to be holding its own against a tidal wave of new solutions but it will be interesting to see what the next 12 months hold. Will other finger and hand-related options, such as finger vein and the added dimension that comes with 3D finger scanning technology, be able to steal a march on other forms of biometrics - like iris and facial - which are making a determined play for market share?