“The market for iris scans used for authorisation is expected to grow by 18% between 2016 and 2020”

The sky’s the limit for biometrics

No more passes — soon you’ll only need your body to get access to your office

Text by Tim Hornyak

Science fiction films are often a template for emerging technology. The 2002 thriller Minority Report has a memorable scene in which Tom Cruise’s character undergoes an instant retinal scan as he walks into a Gap store and is then offered personalised clothing suggestions. While that scenario is still part of the future, public facilities, banks and work places around the world are increasingly turning to biometric identity checks to control access. Biometric information is anything unique to an individual, such as fingerprints, vein patterns, DNA, voice features and iris scans.

Biometric access and tracking have raised concerns about privacy and theft, but it’s gaining acceptance in various forms around the world. In the US, a Pew Research Center study found that a majority of Americans think it’s acceptable for a work place to install high-resolution cameras using facial recognition technology to catch thieves and track employee attendance and performance. Meanwhile, over half a million Canadians and Americans have joined NEXUS, which allows approved citizens to shuttle between the two countries simply by having their irises scanned at border checkpoints. In the UK, a survey by Visa found that two-thirds of the 2,000 respondents aged 18 to 24 would like to be able to use biometric information to make payments. The market for iris scans used for authorisation is expected to grow by 18% between this year and 2020, according to a report by Research and Markets.

“Use of iris recognition biometrics in the education sector will be a key trend for market growth,” the company quoted one of its analysts as saying. “With growing instances of security threats, several schools have incorporated iris-based biometrics and access-control systems to ensure the safety of students and staff.”

Some of these schools are drawing headlines. Last year, St. Mary’s School Ascot in Berkshire, one of England’s most renowned public schools, became the first educational institution in the UK to introduce finger scanners, which read the unique vein patterns in students’ hands. The scanners, developed by Hampshire-based Croma Security Solutions, have been used to monitor students’ class attendance and to make sure everyone is accounted for. When administrators can be instantly aware of who’s where, playing hooky is no longer an option.

Fujitsu has been developing biometric devices for over a decade, and its PalmSecure palm-vein scanners are in use at ATMs. Its latest spin on the technology, shown off at the Ceatec technology show outside Tokyo in October, is a palm-vein scanner that authenticates transactions at points of sale. It allows users to shop without using cards or cash.

“PalmSecure is well known for being difficult to forge as veins are inside a person’s body,” says Fujitsu’s Shuhong Sun, director of the Front Technology Business Promotion Department. “It is one of the most accurate biometric authentication technologies on the market, is contactless, easy to use, and hygienic.”

A finger-vein scanning platform was deployed at sailing events during the 2012 London Olympics, and was based on technology from Japan’s Hitachi. The multinational manufacturer’s VeinID terminals contain LEDs that shine near-infrared light on a user’s fingers. The light is reflected by the hemoglobin in blood, producing an image that’s captured by a camera in the unit. This is instantly digitised and compared to stored patterns, authorising a user if there’s a match. Hitachi says finger-vein scanners are better than fingerprint scanners because the unique patterns are within the body and cannot be surreptitiously stolen.

That possibility has prompted many attacks, highlighting privacy problems with biometric technology. In 2008, hackers published the fingerprints of German interior minister Wolfgang Schaeuble after lifting them from a glass he had used. In 2014, another hacker recreated the prints of German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen by using high-resolution photos. One problem with biometric identifiers is that, though unique, they are not secret, a fact that police investigators exploit all the time: fingerprints and tissue samples containing DNA are found everywhere. Meanwhile, security cameras capture millions of faces every day; and social media sites, such as Facebook, can automatically identify people from uploaded images. 

But that hasn’t stopped the know-how in its various forms from gaining widespread acceptance, propelled by cutting-edge technology from major Japanese firms. NEC’s NeoFace, for instance, is a suite of solutions that offer access to facilities or equipment based on facial-recognition software. One of its latest products is NeoFace Monitor, which enables computers equipped with cameras to monitor and confirm the identity of the current user. As a registered user’s face is detected and recognised by the software, it is automatically logged into the machine. When the user leaves the camera’s field of vision, they are automatically logged off. This precise, high-speed, constant authentication helps protect important information, according to the company.

“NEC provides a portfolio of NeoFace face-recognition software that has been recognised by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology as the world’s fastest and most accurate facial matching technology,” says spokesperson Joseph Jasper of NEC, which has also developed an access-control system for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics that involves a combination of facial recognition and pass swiping.

“Work places, in particular, have adopted the NeoFace software in order to enhance security and efficiency of access at their facilities, where the identity of employees is quickly confirmed by cameras installed in locations where it is important to control access,” says Jasper, adding that the software has been adopted worldwide by organisations such as police forces, immigration departments and businesses.

Determined, Mission: Impossible-style thieves could conceivably forge a user’s appearance or fingerprints. Technology research firm Technavio believes “multimodal biometric access-control systems” that work with two or more scans, such as one of the iris together with one of finger veins, will become an increasingly common security measure among users such as government, banking, financial services, insurance, and other entities.

Clinical Trial Co. is a healthcare company based in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro that recruits patients for clinical trials. It supports enrollment of more than 10,000 patients per year in trials and stores a large volume of patient information on its database.

“Our contact centre handles sensitive information, so the scanner ensures that only authorised people can enter,” says Clinical Trial Manager Wenyang Tan. “Staff members feel that having to scan one’s fingerprints is sometimes troublesome, but necessary, since the information is personal.”

Meanwhile, the use of biometric technology is continuing to spread. In October, Japan’s Justice Ministry began comparing images of the faces of people visiting the country, at 156 points of entry, against a database of international terrorists wanted by Interpol and other authorities. The measure is taken in addition to the fingerprinting and image checks being made against deportees’ mug shots — a practice it has had in place since 2007.