What does the word "biometric" mean?
Biometrics is the science of using a person's unique physiological characteristics to verify their identity. Or, in the official language of the U. S. Department of Homeland Security: "A measurable, physical characteristic or personal behavioural trait used to recognize the identity or verify the claimed identity [of a person]."
- Hand geometry
- Iris of the eye
- Retinal veins in the eye
Why is biometrics being used?
Biometrics was being used to verify identity in a number of areas before the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. After the attacks, the U.S. Congress passed the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Act, which said all people entering the United States had to eventually use passports, visas and other travel documents that used "biometric identifiers recognized by domestic and international standards."
At present, the United States uses digital fingerprints and photographs as part of its US-VISIT program for visitors who require visas. The face photograph will soon be used in conjunction with a "globally interoperable biometric" system of face recognition software that is being adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
A number of large corporations and organizations, such as American Express and the New York Police Department use biometrics to confirm employee identification. Others such as Continental Airlines use biometrics for those employees who need access to secure areas.
The United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands are using biometric measures to help identify some immigrants and international visitors.
Canada uses biometrics in its CANPASS program for frequent travellers. More on that below.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of biometrics?
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says digital fingerscans makes the exit and entry system to the country more efficient. Before the finger scanning system was implemented, only names and biographical data were checked with databases of suspected terrorists or criminals. The fingerscans make it easier to compare identities with watch lists.
Homeland Security also says: "Biometric identifiers make it virtually impossible for anyone else to claim their identity should their travel documents be stolen or duplicated. Biometric identifiers will also reduce fraud and abuse of the [U.S.] immigration system.
Privacy advocates are worried that biometrics and the databases that contain vast amounts of personal information will likely be used for purposes beyond simply screening for airport security and to enforce immigration laws and regulations.
As well, a conference in October 2003 sponsored by Citizenship and Immigration Canada warned: "Biometrics raises a number of additional concerns, including sovereignty, cultural values, and ethics."
Where does Canada use biometrics?
CANPASS, used by Canada Customs, uses fingerscans to ease the flow of goods between the U.S. and Canada. Truck drivers have their fingerprints registered in order to pass through borders smoothly.
At major Canadian airports, members of CANPASS Air go to a kiosk where a digital camera captures an image of the eye. The system recognizes the iris as proof of the user' s identity and then "expedites… passage through Customs and Immigration."
The agency charges an annual fee of $50 for travellers who want faster customs service. The system is in place in Vancouver, Halifax, Toronto and Montreal, and is expected to arrive in Calgary, Winnipeg and Edmonton in 2005.
Frequent travellers to the U.S. from Canada have the option of using the joint Canada-U.S. NEXUS fast-track program to verify their identify and get through customs more quickly. The NEXUS iris scanners are in place at many border crossings on land and, beginning in November 2004, at Vancouver International Airport.
In October 2003, Citizenship and Immigration Canada sponsored a conference to decide how biometrics could be used in this country in the future.
The then minister of citizenship and immigration, Denis Coderre, had proposed that Canada implement a national identity card using biometric measurements. The controversial proposal was debated at the conference but so far the issue has not been a priority for the government of Prime Minister Paul Martin.
While U.S. law says that passports for those entering the country after October 2004 must contain biometric identifiers, the Canadian government has, so far, not included biometrics on the Canadian passport, although it has upgraded the security features of the passport.
The most widely used biometric technology uses fingerprints.
Fingerprint scanners measure the unique, complex swirls on a person's fingertip. They can even accommodate cuts. The swirls are characterized and produced as a template.
However, if a previous user has left an oily imprint on the scanner, or the finger isn't placed in the right position, a false rejection may occur.
At least four counties in California, including Los Angeles, use fingerprint technology to reduce welfare fraud. Spain uses it for its social security card and it's soon to be expanded for use in handing out pension, unemployment and health benefits.
The system maps key features of the topography of a person's hand, measuring all the creases on the palm. This is more expensive and considered less accurate than other biometrics.
A recent creation by LiveGrip analyses the veins, arteries and fatty tissues of the hand. Sixteen scans are taken and a template of the individual's hand is stored.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons uses hand geometry to track movements of its prisoners, staff and visitors within prisons. Once people enter the system, they must have their hands scanned. The information is put in a database and each person is issued a magnetic swipe card that must be carried at all times.
Prisoners are enrolled for access control to places such as the cafeteria, hospital and recreational lounges.
Iris recognition technology was pioneered by John Daugman of Cambridge University in England in the mid-1990s. The technology examines the unique patterns of the iris, the coloured ring around the pupil of the eye.
Iris scans are non-invasive. The person puts his face in front of a camera, which then analyses all the features. It doesn't require people to take off their glasses.
The system can be used to check in passengers at the ticket desk, baggage check and boarding. It can also be used in conjunction with a multiple security door system. Once a person's iris is scanned and approved, the person is allowed into an area.
Iris recognition is seen as having the highest accuracy of all the biometric technologies.
"The technology reads 266 different characteristics as opposed to fingerprint technology, which reads about 90," says Catherine Kaliniak of EyeTicket, an American company that produces iris recognition equipment.
"The iris doesn't change from the time you're one year old."
EyeTicket has pilot-tested its iris systems at the Frankfurt and Charlotte/Douglas, N.C., airports. In addition, it was used at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Iris scans were used on airport staff and aircrew.
EyeTicket is launching a program with Virgin Atlantic and British Airways. Frequent fliers can choose to join the iris program, which will facilitate their passage from the ticket counter through Heathrow's customs and immigration.
The technology is portable and can capture and code millions of scans.
At Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, frequent flyers can sign up for the "Privium Club," which uses iris scans. The software was developed by Schipol, airport police and the immigration service.
Members have their iris data entered on a chip of an identification card. The passenger can zip through passport control and check-in by looking into a scanner. The scan is also used for airport personnel in secure areas.
Schipol authorities will test the technology for one year. After that, they may expand the program.
Retinal scans examine the blood vessel patterns of the retina, the nerve tissue lining the inside of the eye that is sensitive to light.
An infrared light source is used to illuminate the retina of the eye. The image of the enhanced blood vessel pattern of the retina is analysed for characteristic points.
A retinal scan can produce almost the same volume of data as a fingerprint image analysis.
Retinal scan technology has several drawbacks. The retina is susceptible to disease (notably cataracts) that can change the characteristics of the eye and the method of obtaining a retinal scan is personally invasive - a laser light (or other light source) must be directed through the cornea of the eye.
Obtaining a correct retinal scan depends heavily on the skill of the operator.
This technology requires a person to sit in front of a digital camera while it tracks about 80 facial characteristics. The lighting must be perfect and the camera must line up the image perfectly.
Essentially, the technology measures the peaks and valleys of the face, such as the tip of the nose and the depth of the eye sockets, which are known as nodal points - the human face has 80 nodal points, only 14 to 22 are needed for recognition - concentrating on the inner region, which runs from temple to temple and just over the lip. It then comes up with a face print.
Face prints can also be stored on a smart card that users swipe through a door without looking into a camera.
The technology has been around since the early 1990s and is used in more than 100 casinos in the United States. It got a lot of attention last February when authorities used it at Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa to search for felons among the crowd of 100,000 spectators.
Voice dynamics relies on the production of a "voice template" that is used to compare with a spoken phrase. A speaker must repeat a set phrase several times as the system builds the template.
This biometrics technique relies on the behaviour of the subject rather than the physical characteristics of the voice and is considered prone to inaccuracy.
The system verifies voices through passwords and Personal Identification Numbers (PINs). A person must repeat the password and key in their PIN to gain access. The problem is that a person's voice is susceptible to sickness, drugs and emotions.
Biometrics and Air Security
IATA, the International Air Transport Association, has a program, Simplifying Passenger Travel, to try to implement biometrics at airports around the world.
The program is trying to make sure all the different biometric systems being used are compatible, i.e. they can "talk" to each other.
IATA is primarily interested in iris technology. Though it's very expensive, Melanie Lauckner of the SPT program says its sustained use would bring costs down over the years.
Lauckner says the benefits of biometrics override any costs.
"A passenger arrives at the airport, the system checks you in, lets you pass security and into the departure lounge, makes sure your luggage travels with you and informs your country of arrival that you are coming and that you have the proper papers."
Lauckner says IATA has yet to put a dollar figure on implementing biometrics at international airports.