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Monday, August 13, 2001

Biometrics for hi-tech security
Sumesh Raizada

IN countries like India where illiteracy rate is high, identity of people who cannot write their name is done mainly through one simple, age-old method-through their thumb impressions. In criminal investigations, too, palm or finger prints of suspects are taken and recorded for future verifications. This ancient method of identification is now being used in advanced nations.

With computers and Internet penetrating almost every essential service today, there is a need to check and verify whether the user of a service is authorised to do so or not. Automatic teller machines (ATM), banks, defence establishments, advanced research laboratories, hospitals, etc, are some of the places where access is restricted to only authorised people. It, however, can be difficult, time consuming or expensive to employ staff at the entrance to physically check the identity of each individual.


In the case of ATMs, users are allocated a code (PIN) number and a credit card and their identity is verified once the card is inserted and the number is punched into the ATM computer. Similarly in the case of computers or numerous Web applications, authorised user is verified with the help of a login name and a password. However, at places where secrecy of information is of utmost importance or at places where huge cash transactions are involved, these checks may not be considered enough as identity cards may be forged, credit cards stolen or lost and passwords hacked. Moreover, people are also likely to forget the passwords or misplace identity cards and then face trouble.

To solve these problems, biometric verification is now being used increasingly in varied applications. It is the verification of an individual on the basis of his physical appearance or attributes like the eye, speech, handwriting, finger impressions, body measurement, etc. Since the iris of an eye or lines on fingers are different for each individual, there are absolutely no chances of unauthorised persons getting entry into a restricted zone or getting access to sensitive information on the computers or Web.

In biometric verification, physical characteristics of a person are stored in a database and whenever that individual tries to gain access, his unique features are compared with those stored in the databank of the machine. This method is extremely useful where an individual has to gain access to different computers or applications, and remembering different passwords for each application can become rather difficult. With biometrics, a person need not remember numerous code words but simply present himself before a scanning machine. Being fast, reliable and cost-efficient, biometric verification is also being used at airports, business houses, government installations, and notebook computers.

Biometrics can be used along with traditional security systems or in stand-alone systems. The operation of different biometric systems-whether these are retinal scan, signature verification or finger impressions-are is similar. First, a biometric machine measures and stores unique characteristics of an individual. These are used for verification later on when the individual presents himself for identification. The biometric data is stored centrally in a computer server or in machines at different locations. This is done in the form of templates or arithmetic numbers so that the individual data is not misused. For verification, the sample provided by the user is compared with that of the stored template. The user is either accepted or rejected on the basis of certain accuracy levels.

Career opportunities exist in abundance in biometrics as a large number of organisations are using it for checking access to their facilities. Biometrics-enabled ATM machines, cars, mobile phones and computers are also being developed by several companies. It is estimated that nearly 250 organisations are working in the field of biometrics around the world, including manufacturing firms, research institutions, software developers, etc. Employment exists for software professionals in developing programs to suit a specific or generalised application. Professionals are also employed in hardware firms for research and development of biometric gadgets or equipment.

Among various biometric systems, iris recognition is considered the most accurate as it can't be changed even after surgical operation. Besides, even a blind person can undergo this test so long as he has a retina. But it is slightly expensive as it involves a highly sensitive scanning and storage device. For personal computers in domestic applications, voice recognition is most suitable, as a majority of computers that are available these days are multimedia enabled with microphones and sound cards. Facial verification is another technique in which a person is required to stand in front of a camera or a biometric machine which compares the dimensions of different facial attributes like eyes, nose, ears, etc., and their positions in relation to each other. However, in dim or varying light conditions, the result may not be very accurate.

Fingerprint impression is another very accurate method of biometric verification. In this a person is required to place his palm or fingers on a scanning machine that compares the characteristics with a pre-recorded database on computer servers. While this technique also has certain limitations-results may vary in the case of wet or dry hands, or bandaged hands may pose a problem but-it is still being used widely. A biometric device can also record the access date and time, thereby serving the dual purpose of recording the attendance of employees as well as verifying the identity.

Research is underway to make biometric devices that can be attached to the monitor for facial recognition or placed inside the mouse that to read the fingerprint of a user. A body-scanning biometric device can help in identifying a person at a departmental store or at an airport. While he is moving within the premises, his identity gets automatically checked and he need not stop at the check-in counter. Theft or other crimes are likely to be checked considerably with the help of biometrics, as unauthorised people can not get access to high-security or restricted areas.

Companies like Microsoft are developing software that can used to read and compare biometric data fed in computers. Specialised operating systems are being developed to suit specific applications and hardware. Companies like Logitech are developing data input devices for biometric systems. Trinity, a popular multi-platform software development kit, has been developed by Ankari, which is providing a large number of biometric solutions for varied applications.

In India Biometrics has a wide scope in banks, defence installations, research laboratories, etc., where high security and secrecy is required. Considering the vast population, it has also a very useful application in elections, where the authenticity of a voter is very difficult to ascertain. With the help of retina or fingerprint scan, unauthorised voters may be checked. NIIT, a leading software firm, is planning to develop software based on facial recognition. Jaypeetex, a private company in collaboration with a US-based firm, is involved in creating awareness as well as selling biometric equipment in India. Indian police and medical organisations are using fingerprint-based biometric equipment for maintaining and verifying individual identity. At airports and on highways, biometric machines are installed for remote surveillance.

Microhard Technologies, a US-based IT company having its branches at different locations, has training centres at Jaipur, Thane and other places for providing certified training in biometric technology and solutions. It also offers a bright career potential for students as well as professionals. They are required to implement biometric solutions and provide training at the clients' premises. A person needs to be an MCA or a graduate in engineering or computers for becoming a biometric professional. Skills required are in VB, C++, Java, VC++, e-commerce technologies, SQL, XML, WML, Network Security, etc. Axis, a Pune-based firm, offers numerous career opportunities for software developers in the field of biometrics and encryption technologies for banks, e-commerce applications, social organisations, etc. A person desirous of working should be qualified and experienced in ASP, CGI, PERL, etc.

A good career potential is available in this new world of biometrics-in application or software development as well as in research and development. With costs of hardware equipment getting reduced and concern for network or information security gaining importance, biometric applications are bound to increase and hence the employment opportunities.