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Editor's Blog and Industry Comments

UK entrepreneur to make biometrics a mainstream technology

30 May, 2008
Against a backdrop of compromises and widespread inability to provide robust, repeatable biometric deployments, fingerprint recognition is about to go mainstream thanks to the vision of UK Biometrics International.
We all carry individual distinguishing features which we carry around with us daily without the need for keys, cards or tokens. Our iris patterns, faces, fingerprints, vascular structure and even our gait provide an identifying signature that can't be stolen and can't get mislaid in the post. This is the principle of biometrics technology, the answer to identity and access control problems that everyone's been waiting for. The technology exists but so far, there has been no real widespread deployment other than niche applications or government programmes for visa applications, border control and criminal investigation.

Other attempts at providing recognition systems for office access control or access to computer resources have been half-hearted at best with numerous problems relating to such factors as false acceptance rates, unreliability and large scale enrolment problems. Enrolment is the process of initially identifying yourself to the biometric recognition equipment and if a figure of 5% was used as the proportion of the population who can't be enrolled, which is typical for many biometric technologies, this presents a significant problem for public deployments at, for example, a football stadium turnstile.

However, according to Matthew James, the British entrepreneur who set up and runs UK Biometrics International, this is all about to change. Through a shrewd international partnership programme that he's set up with American company Lumidigm, Dutch Alphatronics and Korean Keico, UK Biometrics International plans to take robust and reliable fingerprint biometrics to the mainstream security markets.

I asked Matthew why he had specifically chosen fingerprint technology, an approach that had come under significant criticism in the past for simply not being robust enough for commercial deployment with problems associated with environment, cleanliness, repeatability and the alleged ease with which it could be compromised. Matthew was very clear in his view that he'd made the right choice, explaining that ten times the amount of development effort had gone into fingerprints than any other biometric technology in addition to which it enjoys far greater public acceptance than the alternatives. "In terms of acceptance", he explained, "nobody feels comfortable about exposing their retinas to a scanner, it doesn't matter how many times you explain that its safe. Our eyes are too precious and people don't want to expose them to technical apparatus". He went on to explain the ergonomic benefits of simply presenting a finger to a scanner instead of having to worry about lighting levels or the angle of body presentation. "People aren't interested in that." he told me, "Our fingers and hands are the most flexible and adaptable part of our body and presenting a finger to a scanner is no more complex than touching a button".

Recognising that the technology has had its problems, Matthew was never satisfied with fully launching the technology commercially until the time was right. His company has spent the last few years getting the technology right and making sure that it didn't need back up systems like the incorporation of smart card readers or pin pads which merely indicated that the fingerprint scanning reliability wasn't there yet.

With UK Biometrics International's partnerships, Matthew now believes he's reached his goal. He has access to Lumidigm's multi-spectral fingerprint sensors and Alphatronic's modular industrial access control hardware and this provides him with the way forward. "This is the penicillin of security", he told me enthusiastically, "people will look back on 2008 and describe it as the turning point of biometrics".

It's hard not to share his enthusiasm. This charismatic business leader was entrepreneur of the year in 2007 and has a determined approach to achieving his business objectives. Biometrics is an area that can so easily become bogged down in a mire of technological barriers and academic idealism resulting in delays and compromise but Matthew's approach stems from the harsh world of business reality and is more pragmatic than academic. He has always wanted a technology that is robust, able to withstand harsh environments and usable by everyone and this is what he's achieved.

Keen to see the penicillin in action, I took a look at what's on offer and started with the multi-spectral fingerprint scanner demonstrated by the affable Californian Bill Spence, the Vice President of Transaction Systems at Lumidigm. The Lumidigm reader sets itself apart from the competition by looking deeper than surface scanning providing an ability to capture a clear image regardless of such obstructions as water, grease or make up. By detecting the sub-layers of the fingerprint, the scanner is easily able to detect spoofs such as latex copies of prints. The scanner nonetheless reads the print, stores the image and immediately flags it as a fraudulent identification attempt. Wet and contaminated fingers were easily identified regardless of orientation or pressure considerations having any affect. Bill was keen to point out that the technology isn't simply a laboratory mock-up but is being actively used in challenging field applications such as a theme park in Orlando which processed 38 million fingerprint based transactions in its first 12 months of operation, all based on single touch enrolment. Such applications are a challenging test for any system with deployment plans for daily public usage and takes the technology out of the boundaries of local applications with a closed set of users.

Joost Boel, the General Manager of Alphatronics went on to demonstrate the modular access control system which is a very neat system of polygonal pick 'n' mix modules that tessellate neatly together on door surrounds, gate pillars or ticket issuing machines. The modules consist of fingerprint readers, card readers, bar code readers, intercoms, selection buttons, keypads and ticket issuers. The robust design enables them to be used in virtually any environment both indoors and outdoors, including traffic access points, dock yards and industrial premises.

Biometric technology has always had the potential for widespread use throughout the security industry but its implementation has always been accompanied by a battle for usability and sturdiness. By adopting good business development practices and combining the expertise of business partners, UK Biometrics International are now on the edge of achieving the kind of goals that the biometrics industry have been aiming towards for a long time. Matthew James has the energy and enthusiasm to deliver it and his business partners have the kind of enviable portfolio of technology that makes mainstream adoption an achievable reality.
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