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Banking industry faces up to biometrics

OmniPerception : 23 September, 2009  (Special Report)
Stewart Hefferman of OmniPerception explains how the banking industry can benefit from trials that are taking place of face recognition systems within the UK banking sector
Last year HSBC made history by becoming the first bank in the world to adopt facial recognition technology to enhance security at its data centres.

Since then it has installed facial biometric access control units into a number of its data centres through the UK to protect sensitive information that might otherwise be vulnerable to loss or misuse.

The move comes at a time when identity theft is now the fastest growing crime in the UK - affecting more than 100,000 people at a cost of £1.7m according to Home Office figures.

Recent high profile cases of sensitive data being lost by financial and also public sector organisations has highlighted the risk to individuals and to the reputation of the organisations concerned.

Recognising this problem, HSBC is working with UK facial biometric experts OmniPerception to develop a more secure access control system for their new data centres. The bank has worked closely with the company in testing and developing the right solution, based on OmniPerception's CheckPointâ„¢ facial recognition product.

First deployed in police applications, in Liverpool, London and elsewhere, OmniPerception's biometric solutions are now being applied to access control, data protection and the improvement of identity management generally.

After extensive field trials at HSBC's Canary Wharf offices, the CheckPoint system will be installed at access points as a way of verifying the identity of staff and external contractors who need access to areas containing sensitive information.

John Williams, Head of Physical Risk at HSBC said the bank decided to use biometrics to protect its high vulnerability inner sanctums such as communication suites and data halls.

In explaining his choice of a facial biometric solution, he said: "To gain acceptance from the user, a biometric needs to be as non-intrusive as possible. One natural thing human beings always rely on is to be recognised by someone they know. It's far more natural than say, getting your eye scanned or gently moving your finger across a reader to get yourself identified."

HSBC has been quick to realise that facial biometrics is an effective way of protecting the bank's most valuable asset - data. OmniPerception is in talks with other banking organisations to exploit the potential more widely throughout the industry as they believe the potential for using the technology in this context has yet to be fully realised.

As well as being used to protect the security of back office functions, facial biometrics can be used to verify the identity of banking staff in conjunction with police. When a person applies for a job at a bank their facial image could be checked by police against their image database as a way of checking criminal history. This is an effective way of vetting banking staff from the outset and guards against fraud.

Wider biometric technology applications including fingerprints can also be used in high street banks to address the issues of card cloning and PIN theft.

A survey conducted by Fujitsu four years ago found that one in three banking customers is ready to embrace biometric technologies in the hope of adding greater security to their finances.

Fujitsu said that card cloning, PIN theft by shoulder surfing and high-profile phishing attacks are all undermining consumer confidence in secure banking and many would be happy to use biometric solutions such as digital fingerprints to add an extra layer of authentication and security.

Fujitsu interviewed UK banking customers and found one in three would like their banks to start using biometrics.

Fujitsu has already conducted trial in Japan with trials of biometric at cash points where customers' palms are read. The system works using a proprietary Fujitsu algorithm which creates a pattern of the blood vessels in the palm using an infra-red scan. It is then checked against patterns which can either be stored in the system or on a bank card.

Despite this very public endorsement, biometric technology in general has yet to be rolled out for widespread use by banks because the industry is still concerned about user acceptance.

In reality, cost implications are more likely to be a reason for the slow uptake, particularly in the current climate which is testing the resolve of the entire industry.

Against this backdrop, facial biometrics is seen as luxury more than a necessity and is preventing a more widespread roll-out. In response to this concern, the biometric industry argues that more widespread uptake would have a positive implication on the cost which would be substantially reduced if the technology was adopted by the banks.

The biometrics industry must take some responsibility for this slow uptake. Closer working relationships between the biometric and banking industry is vital to ensuring more widespread adoption of the technology. This would not only ensure more buy-in from the banks but also ensure they have the opportunity to shape and influence the overall solution so that it is suitable for each particular application.

HSBC is a good example of this. When it decided to explore the opportunities facial biometrics could bring to enhancing security at its data centres, it approached OmniPerception and from an early stage began working with us on a tailor made solution that fulfilled the relevant criteria it laid down.

This partnership approach ensured that the technology that was rolled out was successful in addressing the specific security issues HSBC was concerned about and resulted in a very successful project.

The project had wider implications for biometric industry as a whole because it ensures that we get closer to our customers and better understand their needs and expectations.

For me, it highlighted the fact that there is no 'one size fits all' approach and that the key to being an innovative technology provider is not in developing the technology itself but also being flexible and responsive to customer requirements.

The need to manage expectations about the role the technology can play in improving security is vital as biometrics should not be seen as a panacea but as one solution among a number of measures.

In the coming months, OmniPerception will be looking to continue its dialogue with the banking industry to not only highlight the benefits the technology can bring but also collate valuable feedback from the industry in the hope that facial biometrics will become more widely adopted in future.
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