Biometrics provides absolute identity at the cost of privacy

Sept. 4, 2003
Russ Kratowicz, P.E., CMRP, executive editor, says biometrics is capable of automatically identifying an individual on the basis of inherent biological characteristics.

Sometime around 1831, a new word entered the American lexicon. That word, biometrics, is the subject of this month's column. As originally introduced, biometrics, a noun used with a singular verb, meant the statistical analysis of biological observations and phenomena.

This would be perfectly fine for our purposes if Plant Services were a magazine dedicated to bringing you the absolute best in information concerning chlorophyll-laden life forms. Unfortunately, the only plants we know about feature quite a bit more steel and concrete and rather less of that green, oxygen-releasing miracle that makes life as we know it possible.

Recently, however, the word has taken on another high-tech definition. Biometrics also now refers to technology that is supposed to be capable of automatically identifying an individual on the basis of inherent biological characteristics, such as face, voice, fingerprint and iris patterns or other factors unique to that singular person. Look at it as a macro version of a DNA match.

The ostensible reason given for the development of this technology is a higher degree of safety and security. Relying on documents, passports and photos, you see, isn't considered a totally foolproof way to verify a person's identity. Biometrics seeks to furnish absolutely positive identification. After all, one can forge a paper token of legitimacy, but surely nobody can fake an eyeball or fingerprint. Or can they?

In an attempt to learn more about this subject that may well be coming to a manufacturing plant near and dear to your hearts, join me on another dive into the chaos we affectionately call the Web in search of zero-cost, non-commercial, registration-free resources about biometrics.


Whenever one plows into a new field, it's a good idea to understand the terminology and jargon that grow there. For that, you need a glossary, and the good folks at the UK-based Association for Biometrics know your needs well. Click your way over to, where you'll find a long list of applicable words and their definitions. It's not particularly user-friendly, as the word and its definition are set in the same font with no visual element separating entries. But, hey, it's free.

The big picture

The Pattern Recognition and Image Processing Lab in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Michigan State University offers a bit more detail about some of the biometric technologies at in a document titled An Overview of Biometrics. When you get to the bottom of the page, click on one of the technologies for an expanded explanation of how things are supposed to work in the biometric world in which we'll be living.

Novell, Inc. posts all manner of information for software developers who use the company's products. Among the many articles is one that explains the basic concepts behind biometric technologies. You can find Overview of Biometrics at

Face recognition

Human beings are hardwired to use the face as a primary means of recognition. Your mug is, after all, the most distinguishing characteristic you can display to the world at large. A body is a body is a body, except when it looks at you and smiles, as in the photos on the wall in your local post office.

For your reading pleasure, BRTRC, a defense contractor based in Fairfax, Va. has posted Face Recognition 101: A Brief Primer by Duane M. Blackburn. The document doesn't explain the nitty-gritty of how the technology is supposed to work. Rather, it explores the functional testing that qualifies a given face recognition technology as useful. To learn more, face your mouse in the general direction of and click the button. By the way, I was unable to determine what BRTRC stands for. Spooky, no?

Voice recognition

Chances are, you're familiar with the art and science of monitoring machine vibration as a diagnostic tool to achieve optimum asset reliability. If so, it's not that big a mental leap to get a grasp on voice recognition. At the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science, four scholars, Kohanski, Lipski, Tannir and Yeung, constructed a digital voice recognition program using commercially available software and the obviously necessary microphones and other audio hardware. Their lab report, Development of a Voice Recognition Program, shows how they did it, and the intellectually curious out there in readerland will enjoy it. Order that mouse of yours to go to to get the full story.

Iris scans

You've got at least one eye chock full of your identity. The iris is the colored ring around the pupil, which is the hole through which light enters the eyeball. The immutable patterns in the iris form the basis for identification. Dr. John G. Daugman of the Computer Laboratory of University of Cambridge is credited with being the inventor of iris scan technology. His original paper on the subject, High Confidence Visual Recognition of Persons by a Test of Statistical Independence, was published in November, 1993 and is available on the Web. Take a minute to watch as your mouse ambles over to for the goods. The document is a bit of a heavy read, but I thought it had some historical significance.


Putting a Finger on ItThe Loops and Whorls of Biometrics is an article posted by the Australian Academy of Science. The piece explores automated fingerprint identification in some depth, and finishes with a list of resources for further reading, links that show how to capture fingerprints and more links that take you around the world in search of information about fingerprints. Digitally manipulate your desk rodent over to and enjoy the abundant riches.


If you want to fool around with a biometric technology, go to, the Web site hosted by The Fraunhofer Institute (Germany). There you will find a demo version of a real-time face detection program. The software will remain active for 60 days once you download it to your machine. Unfortunately, the details about the package are posted in German. But, then you could use to translate it.

More practical for day-to-day application is something called PDALok, a software package that, as the name implies, keeps the information on your personal digital assistant away from prying eyes. This security software captures, verifies and encrypts your signature directly on the device. Instead of a password, you'll need to scribble your John Hancock on the screen to get your PDA to function. Free demo versions, all of which operate for five days, are available for the Pocket PC 2002, Win CE and Palm OS. There's no telling what happens to your PDA on day six. So mouse your way over to and lock up that handy device. Let us know what happens in a week.

Thanks to the folks at Business 2.0 Media Inc., San Francisco, you have access to a biometrics portal. This directory of biometric ID systems provides links to relevant articles, publications, organizations, case studies and more. The door to this resource is located at,,4217,00.html.

If you read the claims in the literature, you can easily get the impression that biometrics is a whole lot better than even sliced bread. It's a relatively new technology, and it wasn't surprising that the research for this column uncovered a lot of what might be considered hype. So before you rush out to purchase the latest and greatest biometric hardware to secure your plant and its environs, be sure to read Biometrics: Separating Myth From Reality by Allan Turner and Duane Blackburn. They address five common misperceptions about the technology, which, I'm sure, could have been surmised using a healthy dose of common sense. Nevertheless, it's nice to see such skepticism in pixels on a monitor. Mouse over to for the full story.

More specifically, Matsumoto, Matsumoto, Yamada and Hoshino at Yokohama National University, Japan, report that gelatinous, artificial fingers can fool fingerprint devices. Their paper, Impact of Artificial "Gummy" Fingers on Fingerprint Systems, is posted at

Expectation of privacy

When the Commonwealth of Virginia passed a bill that allowed public sector use of facial recognition technology, the state's crime commission hired RAND, the original think tank, to evaluate the technology with respect to legality and privacy issues. The report, Biometrics: A Look at Facial Recognition by Woodward, Horn, Gatune and Thomas, is a good read, and your mousie will find it hiding in its hole at The next time you're out shopping, take notice of the many cameras that are keeping an eye on you and remember what you read at the Rand Web site.

BioPrivacy initiative

As part of its mission to raise awareness of personal and informational biometric privacy, the New York-based International Biometric Group's BioPrivacy Initiative advocates best practices for deploying the technology and establishes criteria for evaluating the impact biometrics has on your privacy. The site also rates the different technologies for the potential for abuse of your privacy. Sneak your mouse over to to learn the impact the technology will have when you secure your plant.

Biometrics and Privacy by Roger Clarke at Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra, Australia can be found at This rather long paper delves into issues such as identification and identity authentication; effectiveness, accuracy and benefits; threats and safeguards. If you read nothing else here, be sure to read the part about the tradeoffs between false positives and false negatives and follow the link where he discusses automated denial of identity.

Concerns about privacy

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has additional concerns about the deployment of biometric technology, which has been touted as the ultimate answer to terrorism and other social ills. That may be true, but the organization points out that independent, objective scientific test data for the technology upon which to base the claims are extraordinarily rare. In a document titled Biometrics: Who's watching you?, Abernathy, Tien, Granger and Hor make the case that the databases resulting from the deployment of the technology are subject to misuse, theft and error. You think it's hard to rectify an obvious error in your credit report? Just wait. Click on over to for a view into what the EFF sees as a larger problem.

Without comment

American Civil Liberties Union,

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