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Anti-biometrics press onslaught unwarranted.

UK Biometrics International : 27 November, 2007  (Technical Article)
UK Biometrics Director, Shaun Oakes, explains why biometrics technology is not the route to identity theft as made out by the popular press.
The recent press coverage of biometric technology in the wake of HMRC losing 25 million records has been negative to say the least. A US academic paper proving that it is possible to partially recreate a fingerprint from unencrypted data has been quoted and more recently six leading academics have written to a Parliamentary committee to express their dismay at the way biometrics has been proposed as a means to secure data.

The national biometric ID programme is back in the spotlight with few supporters. And in the weeks preceding the HMRC data loss, a small group of concerned parents in London suggested 'perverts will use (biometric) technology to track your kids', a Shadow Minister branded the biometric industry 'worse than ID thieves', and anti-biometrics websites run by unqualified campaigners are quoted verbatim in the national press with no attempt to seek comment from industry experts.

How is the UK biometrics industry to respond to ill-informed comment and wild speculation? The answer is simple. Education.

Biometrics is a fast moving, emerging technology. The challenge we faced ten years ago as biometrics began to come to market was again one of education. But opinion was more benign than it is today. The media and public were fascinated by the possibilities offered by biometrics, and our task was to explain how the science worked then speculate on possible applications.

Today, broadly speaking most people know what biometrics is and have an idea how it works. But biometric technology even a year ago was not so advanced as it is today, and many media commentators are quoting facts that were relevant five years ago.

Today biometric readers are capable of returning error rates that will beat swipe cards or prox fobs hands down. The oft quoted myth that it is possible to cut off someone's finger and use the dead finger as a key, is just that. Myth. Sub-dermal, multispectral imaging scans the fingerprint surface and the sub-dermal layers. It can tell if blood is pumping through the finger and if not, it will reject the scan.

Another myth is the 'spoof' fingerprint recreated from a latent print or the authorised users own fingerprint. Myth. UK Biometrics has tested the J Series sub-dermal reader with over 20,000 spoof fingerprints ranging from the crude to the highly sophisticated. Not one has come close to fooling the scanner. We will continue to test spoof fingerprints and rigorously test the security of our products to ensure the myth of a gifted hacker recreating ID from stolen biometric data remains a myth.

The irony for the biometrics industry in the face of what sometimes appears to be a media onslaught, is that fact that the public, industry, Government and the military are voting with their feet. UK Biometrics currently has ten regional offices across the UK and a further eighteen are planned over the coming eighteen months. Biometric technology is protecting nurseries, schools, hospitals, the workplace, data and homes with more people signing up every day. Users, from school children and homeowners to industry bosses universally praise biometrics for its ease of use and the total security it provides.

In the face of this commercial success would be easy enough to simply ignore the media and the public debate. But a bunker mentality will not serve our industry in the long term. It is not pleasant to arrive at work and find the industry you represent branded as helping perverts, but the answer is education and demonstration. The thousands of users of biometric technology throughout the UK differ from ill informed pundits in one vital respect. Adopters of biometric technology have been educated about its benefits and they have had the opportunity to ask searching questions face to face with an expert.

As biometrics becomes ever more familiar technology, this group of educated users will grow. It is the duty of all of us in the biometrics industry to help speed and facilitate that process by engaging in the public debate, presenting the facts and providing honest answers.

Author Shaun Oakes, Operations Director of UK Biometrics, is responsible for product development and logistics. His role takes him to the Far East, the USA and Europe for meetings with global partners, as well as throughout the UK as he works to identify client's needs. A security systems expert, Shaun has addressed international security seminars and is a regular contributor to UK and international security industry publications.
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