Asia is expected within the next decade to lead the world in the use of biometrics, with countries such as Cambodia, China, Vietnam and Japan already in various stages of planning, development and deployment.
Simply defined, biometrics are automated methods of identifying a person or verifying the identity of a person using a defined physiological or behavioral characteristic. Physiological characteristics are based upon data resulting from the direct measurement of a part of the human body, such as the shape of a hand or finger, face and retina. Alternatively, behavioral traits, such as signature and gait patterns, are learned or acquired.
Generally viewed by the public as a highly expensive and somewhat puzzling application, steady improvements in cost and performance over the past two decades have propelled biometrics forward. According to the International Biometric Group, annual biometric industry revenues are expected to reach US$5.7 billion by 2010, up from $1.5 billion in 2005. IBG predicts in 2006 fingerprint scanning will comprise 43.6% of the biometrics market, followed by facial recognition at 19%, middleware at 11.5% and hand geometry at 8.8%.
Biometrics are used for two purposes - identification and verification. In an identification mode, or "one-to-many matching" scenario, an individual submits a "live" sample to a system that performs a check against an enrolled population by searching a database for a match based on the submitted biometric. This reduces the probability that more than one individual will use an identity.
In a verification mode, also called "one-on-one matching", a person's claimed identity is authenticated from their previously enrolled pattern.
The system checks a database to confirm that the individual is not on a "watch list" of individuals. This mode is most often used in computer or network access environments.
Biometric-based authentication applications have been proposed as a practical solution for the financial services, healthcare, immigration, IT security and law enforcement sectors. The limitations of traditional security approaches such as tokens, smart cards, photo IDs, physical keys, personal identification numbers and passwords have made biometrics an increasingly attractive alternative for businesses, customers and government entities.
Biometric solutions such as fingerprinting, voice recognition, signature verification, iris/retina scanning, facial recognition and hand geometry provide advantages over traditional security approaches, due to their anti-counterfeiting attributes and the fact biometric identifiers are less likely to be lost, stolen or forgotten. In a password-dominated world where security is an overriding concern, biometrics offer businesses, customers and government entities a viable security alternative.
This month, Nobuaki Furuse, general manager with electronics giant Hitachi Asia Ltd, noted that Japan had the largest deployment of biometric solutions in the world, primarily for customer access to ATM machines. Taiwan and Singapore also lead Asia in the use of biometrics, with installation in condominiums and railway stations. Furuse also noted the strengths of biometrics lie in the technology's acceptability, reliability, integration aspects and non-transferability.
Looking ahead, the main driver for the adoption of biometric solutions in Asia will continue to be the government sector, specifically in the areas of immigration and security.
"Now that the concept has been proven in the public context, this will pave the way for the adoption of biometrics," noted Terry Hartmann, director of secure identification and biometrics at Unisys Corporation.
"Government departments that need to verify identify will consider the technology initially, after which the private sector will be prompted to investigate how it can solve existing problems, such as building access control."
Starting next month, all passport holders in Singapore will be able to apply for new travel documents with additional security features designed in accordance with international standards. BioPass is a tamper-resistant biometric passport with an embedded Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip, carrying the passport holder's facial and fingerprint biometric identifiers.
However, added security and peace of mind come at a cost, with new passports costing about 20-30% more than traditional passports. In addition, equipping a customs booth could run between US$15,000 and $20,000. Many Asian countries have considered passing the cost incurred for the new biometric equipment to passport holders through a variety of tax increases.
Biometric passports for Hong Kong residents will be made available in early 2007. Like Singapore, Hong Kong's new passport will be embedded with an RFID chip containing the image and biographical information of the passport holder.
An added feature will allow for the storage of fingerprint images and changes to international standards. According to a February statement issued by Unisys Corporation, "Traveler security is driving the adoption of biometrics much faster than commercial pressures would have."
According to results of a survey released by Unisys Corporation in April, global consumers may be warming to the idea of biometrics. The survey showed that nearly 70% of global consumers support the use of biometrics to verify an individual's identity, but only if the biometric is administered by a trusted organization such as a bank, government entity or healthcare provider.
"This research is revealing since many headlines today seem to question biometric adoption because of legitimate privacy concerns," said Mark Cohn, vice president of homeland security solutions for Unisys Corporation.
In the survey, convenience was noted as the top reason to support biometric technologies, with respondents noting a clear benefit of not having to remember passwords or login data. Voice recognition was noted as the most favored authentication method, cited by 32% of respondents.
But biometric technologies are not without problems. Financial Insights, a subsidiary of US-based research company IDC, noted in a June report, "The lack of standardization between devices, a lack of regulatory guidance and cost concerns show that the practical implementation of biometric authentication on a customer level is still several years away." Moreover, legal, cultural and political concerns, as well as accuracy, compatibility, connectivity and comparability issues, remain largely unanswered.
Above all, ongoing cost and privacy concerns present the most serious barriers to widespread adoption of biometrics. Although the benefits of introducing biometric technologies are very clear in many cases, some Asian business and government leaders worry that the cost of deployment, the demands of database management, staff training and the lack of standardization make biometrics a risky and unpredictable business endeavor.
International privacy advocates worry that the information collected could be used to severely diminish civil liberties and freedoms.
Beyond the issues of cost and privacy, other concerns related to the use of biometrics include: time constraints associated with the development of a realistic threat model; the quality of risk data used; the reliability of information collected through the initial enrollment process and the possible discriminatory and the dehumanizing aspects of collecting, storing and using biometric information.
Utilized alone or integrated with other technologies such as smart cards, encryption keys and digital signatures in a two-factor authentication environment, biometrics have become an increasingly accurate, user-friendly and affordable security solution. However, before widespread adoption can become a reality, several important questions regarding privacy, cost and standardization must be resolved. Biometrics do not provide a perfect solution for Asia's security needs, but the technology will certainly merit close attention in the next decade.
Asia Times Online