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Biometrics are automated methods of recognizing a person based on a physiological or behavioral characteristic. Among the features measured are; face, fingerprint, hand geometry, iris, retinal, signature, and voice. Biometric technologies are becoming the foundation of an extensive array of highly secure identification and personal verification solutions. As the level of security breaches and transaction fraud increases, the need for highly secure identification and personal verification technologies is becoming apparent.

Biometric-based solutions are able to provide for confidential financial transactions and personal data privacy. The need for biometrics can be found in federal, state and local governments, in the military, and in commercial applications. Enterprise-wide network security infrastructures, government IDs, secure electronic banking, investing and other financial transactions, retail sales, law enforcement, and health and social services are already benefiting from these technologies.

Biometric-based authentication applications include workstation, network, and domain access, single sign-on, application logon, data protection, remote access to resources, transaction security and Web security. Trust in these electronic transactions is essential to the healthy growth of the global economy. Utilized alone or integrated with other technologies such as smart cards, encryption keys and digital signatures, biometrics are set to pervade nearly all aspects of the economy and our daily lives. Utilizing biometrics for personal authentication is becoming convenient and considerably more accurate than current methods (such as the utilization of passwords or PINs). This is because biometrics links the event to a particular individual (a password or token may be used by someone other than the authorized user), is convenient (nothing to carry or remember), accurate (it provides for positive authentication), can provide an audit trail and is becoming socially acceptable and inexpensive.

The security field uses three different types of authentication:

bulletSomething you know — a password, PIN, or piece of personal information (such as your mother's maiden name)
bulletSomething you have — a card key, smart card, or token (like a Secure ID card)
bulletSomething you are — a biometric.

Of these, a biometric is the most secure and convenient authentication tool. It can't be borrowed, stolen, or forgotten, and forging one is practically impossible. (Replacement part surgery, by the way, is outside the scope of this introduction.)


Face recognition analyzes facial characteristics. It requires a digital camera to develop a facial image of the user for authentication. This technique has attracted considerable interest, although many people don't completely understand its capabilities. Some vendors have made extravagant claims — which are very difficult, if not impossible, to substantiate in practice — for facial recognition devices. Because facial scanning needs an extra peripheral not customarily included with basic PCs, it is more of a niche market for network authentication. However, the casino industry has capitalized on this technology to create a facial database of scam artists for quick detection by security personnel.

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Fingerprint looks at the patterns found on a fingertip. There are a variety of approaches to fingerprint verification. Some emulate the traditional police method of matching minutiae; others use straight pattern-matching devices; and still others are a bit more unique, including things like moiréfringe patterns and ultrasonics. Some verification approaches can detect when a live finger is presented; some cannot.

A greater variety of fingerprint devices is available than for any other biometric. As the prices of these devices and processing costs fall, using fingerprints for user verification is gaining acceptance — despite the common — criminal stigma.

Fingerprint verification may be a good choice for in-house systems, where you can give users adequate explanation and training, and where the system operates in a controlled environment. It is not surprising that the workstation access application area seems to be based almost exclusively on fingerprints, due to the relatively low cost, small size, and ease of integration of fingerprint authentication devices.

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Hand Geometry involves analyzing and measuring the shape of the hand. This biometric offers a good balance of performance characteristics and is relatively easy to use. It might be suitable where there are more users or where users access the system infrequently and are perhaps less disciplined in their approach to the system.

Accuracy can be very high if desired and flexible performance tuning and configuration can accommodate a wide range of applications. Organizations are using hand geometry readers in various scenarios, including time and attendance recording, where they have proved extremely popular. Ease of integration into other systems and processes, coupled with ease of use, makes hand geometry an obvious first step for many biometric projects.

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Iris based biometric, on the other hand, involves analyzing features found in the colored ring of tissue that surrounds the pupil. Iris scanning, undoubtedly the less intrusive of the eye-related biometrics, uses a fairly conventional camera element and requires no close contact between the user and the reader. In addition, it has the potential for higher than average template-matching performance. Iris biometrics work with glasses in place and is one of the few devices that can work well in identification mode. Ease of use and system integration have not traditionally been strong points with iris scanning devices, but you can expect improvements in these areas as new products emerge.

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Retina based biometric involves analyzing the layer of blood vessels situated at the back of the eye. An established technology, this technique involves using a low-intensity light source through an optical coupler to scan the unique patterns of the retina. Retinal scanning can be quite accurate but does require the user to look into a receptacle and focus on a given point. This is not particularly convenient if you wear glasses or are concerned about having close contact with the reading device. For these reasons, retinal scanning is not warmly accepted by all users, even though the technology itself can work well.

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Signature verification analyzes the way a user signs her name. Signing features such as speed, velocity, and pressure are as important as the finished signature's static shape. Signature verification enjoys a synergy with existing processes that other biometrics do not. People are used to signatures as a means of transaction-related identity verification, and most would see nothing unusual in extending this to encompass biometrics. Signature verification devices are reasonably accurate in operation and obviously lend themselves to applications where a signature is an accepted identifier. Surprisingly, relatively few significant signature applications have emerged compared with other biometric methodologies. But if your application fits, it is a technology worth considering.

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Voice authentication is not based on voice recognition but on voice-to-print authentication, where complex technology transforms voice into text. Voice biometrics has the most potential for growth, because it requires no new hardware — most PCs already contain a microphone. However, poor quality and ambient noise can affect verification. In addition, the enrollment procedure has often been more complicated than with other biometrics, leading to the perception that voice verification is not user friendly. Therefore, voice authentication software needs improvement. One day, voice may become an additive technology to finger-scan technology. Because many people see finger scanning as a higher authentication form, voice biometrics will most likely be relegated to replacing or enhancing PINs, passwords, or account names.

By Benson Yeung, Senior Partner

Benson Yeung Biography

Mr. Yeung has over two decades of IT architecture and security related experience, including extensive experience as an integrator and distributor of IT products and services. In 1991, Mr. Yeung founded Triware Networld Systems, a San Francisco Bay Area IT systems integrator, and in 2000, he founded Triware Networld Solutions, Inc., a San Francisco Bay Area solution provider for IT knowledge management.

Since 1991, Mr. Yeung has consulted on IT and business related issues to over 300 small, medium, and large organizations. He also contributes articles to the Loral Computer Special Interest Group, Microsoft Project, and Silicon Valley Computer Society monthly newsletter.

For more than two decades, Mr. Yeung has spent a significant amount of time in IT security fields including being a forensics investigator, auditor and has a deep understanding of the state of IT security issues and has developed frameworks and best practice methodologies for the field.

Mr. Yeung also works closely with various VC firms and startups in Silicon Valley as a Visionary, Strategist, Technology Advisor and Operations Consultant. Mr. Yeung has a B.S. in Computer Science from Arkansas State University. He is Microsoft Certified System Engineer & Certified Trainer.

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