[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

6/1/98: Sacremento Bee article on Human Bar Codes

>>>Computer ID gets personal: Verifying identities goes high tech with
>>>scanning of human 'bar codes'
>>>By Michael Stroh
>>>Bee Staff Writer
>>>(Published June 1, 1998)
>>>Imagine if your house were smart enough to unlock the front door at the
>>>sound of your voice. Or your office PC only logged you onto the
>>>Internet after first recognizing your face.
>>>In short: What if machines could scan and identify us like soup cans in
>>>a grocery store so we never had to carry another key or recall another
>>>arcane PIN number ever again (hmmm . . . was it my husband's birthday
>>>or my poodle's age?).
>>>Once stock props for James Bond flicks, the technology to identify
>>>people by the pits and freckles of the iris, the whorl and arch of the
>>>fingerprint, or the timbre of their voice -- a technology known as
>>>"biometrics" -- is not just possible, "it's here," said Ed Howard,
>>>executive director of the Center for Law in the Public Interest in Los
>>>"It's science fact, not science fiction."
>>>Today dozens of companies in the United States are developing biometric
>>>devices. Last year biometric firms worldwide sold roughly $140 million
>>>worth of equipment -- $33 million for uses outside law enforcement.
>>>Some analysts predict the worldwide biometrics industry could balloon
>>>to as much as $1 billion by 2001.
>>>"In the Information Age, security is becoming more and more important;
>>>people are looking for better ways to protect their data. Biometrics
>>>can do that," said Erik Bowman, a biometrics industry analyst with
>>>CardTech/SecurTech in Bethesda, Md.
>>>The technology is taking off, experts say, because it allows companies
>>>and government agencies to identify people much more surely than with
>>>Social Security numbers, mothers' maiden names and other common methods
>>>used today.
>>>"These have become so widely available, and so widely compromised, that
>>>they're no longer useful for really definitive identification," said
>>>John Stafford of the California Bankers Association. "Someone can steal
>>>a Social Security card or driver's license, but they cannot take your
>>>fingerprint or your retina."
>>>The Immigration and Naturalization Service in January installed
>>>face-recognition technology on the California-Mexico border at Otay
>>>Mesa. Now commuters who don't want to spend hours waiting to cross the
>>>busy border can pay a yearly fee of $129 to zoom through a special lane
>>>that scans their faces.
>>>BMW is working on a car with built-in fingerprint recognition that
>>>requires the owner's finger to start the engine.
>>>MasterCard is experimenting with fingerprint scanners as a replacement
>>>for the traditional signature to seal a purchase.
>>>At the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, athletes had to spread their
>>>hand over a hand geometry reader to check in. A similar device is used
>>>in the San Francisco International Airport to access secure areas.
>>>Despite its high-tech image, biometrics has a long history. The ancient
>>>Chinese studied finger images, trying to unlock the secret of the
>>>But it wasn't until the 1880s -- when British anthropologist Sir
>>>Francis Galton first calculated mathematically that no two people could
>>>have the same fingerprint pattern -- that biometrics found practical
>>>application. Soon after the discovery, British police started to use
>>>prints to ID criminals.
>>>As the use of biometrics today moves beyond fingerprinting criminals
>>>and into personal identification, some say the technology raises
>>>troubling legal and ethical questions.
>>>The human retina, for example, can reveal whether a person has certain
>>>diseases such as diabetes, causing some to fear a biometric retina
>>>scanner could be misused by insurance companies or employers to
>>>Critics also wonder who will have access to the digital storehouse of
>>>retinas or fingerprints kept by companies, and what would happen if
>>>this human bar code data were sold or traded, much the way magazines
>>>sell subscription lists to junk mail companies today?
>>>"It scares the dickens out of me," said Beth Givens of the Privacy
>>>Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego.
>>>Lawmakers are only now beginning to wrestle with these questions.
>>>The House Domestic and International Monetary Policy Subcommittee last
>>>month held a hearing on biometrics to bring legislators up to speed on
>>>the technology.
>>>Meanwhile, Assemblyman Kevin Murray, D-Los Angeles, is pushing a bill
>>>-- the first of its kind in the country -- that would attempt to build
>>>walls around biometric data and prevent it from being misused.
>>>The bill, AB 50, would make illegal the sale of voice, fingerprint and
>>>retina databases to third parties. It would also prohibit the use of
>>>such information in discriminatory practices. If the bill passes, a
>>>bank, for example, couldn't stick face-recognition bank machines only
>>>in branches located in poor neighborhoods.
>>>The bill, slated to be heard June 9 in the Senate Public Safety
>>>Committee, has the unlikely backing of both the California Bankers
>>>Association and the nonprofit Center for Law in the Public Interest.
>>>"We can't let the genie out of the bottle," said Howard, the executive
>>>director with the Center for Law in the Public Interest. "We can't let
>>>an industry emerge with a profit motive to sell this kind of
>>>information to as many people as possible."
>>>Those in the biometric industry argue that many fears surrounding
>>>biometric devices are unfounded.
>>>Retina scanners are not designed to diagnose illness. Even databases of
>>>hand or face scans would be worthless to third-party companies. The
>>>reason: Most devices don't even store a person's entire fingerprint or
>>>retina image, just its digital shorthand, the key areas needed to
>>>differentiate one person from another.
>>>"It's more a public relations issue the industry has to deal with,"
>>>said Bowman, the industry analyst.
>>>Still, those in the industry do admit that biometrics is by no means
>>>A hacker, for instance, might be able to pilfer a data base of, say,
>>>fingerprints and use this to access a secured computer system.
>>>Biometrics is susceptible to other, more mundane, problems too. A
>>>finger can accidentally be burned, scarred or amputated, making
>>>fingerprint or hand scanners unreliable, if not useless. People grow
>>>beards and have plastic surgery, which may throw off face recognition
>>>technology. A stressful day may cause the voice to waiver enough to
>>>confuse a voice recognition reader.
>>>Companies that make biometric devices have thought through these
>>>problems -- and even the most macabre fraud scenarios.
>>>To prevent desperate criminals from trying to cut off somebody's finger
>>>to gain access to a secure computer or bank vault, fingerprint scanners
>>>made by Mytec Technologies of Toronto, Canada, also measure skin
>>>temperature to determine whether somebody's finger is alive or dead.
>>>Miros Inc. of Wellesley, Mass., has programmed its face-recognition
>>>device to differentiate between a two-dimensional photograph of a
>>>person and the real McCoy. (Although company officials have said the
>>>technology might confuse identical twins.)
>>>Meanwhile, researchers are even now trying to come up with more
>>>ironclad biometric devices, many of which are even more outlandish than
>>>those being made today.
>>>They're trying to cook up ways to recognize us by the distinct pattern
>>>of veins in our hands or heat distribution under the skin of our faces.
>>>One day, experts say, it may even be possible for machines to do what
>>>only our loved ones and blood hounds are capable of today: to ID us by
>>>our scent.
>>>"This is all 'Brave New World' stuff," said Givens.