Biometrics is a technology used to identify an individual electronically based on their unique biological characteristics. For example, fingerprint detection has long been used to distinguish one individual from another, as each person’s fingerprints are never identical. The same concept is built upon in biometrics, allowing a computer to scan in the biometric identifier and compare it against a database for matches.
Biometric technology can be of two kinds: physiological or behavioral. Physiological indicators are physical characteristics, like retinas or DNA markers; whereas examples of behavioral indicators are signatures or voice patterns. There are a number of unique characteristics which are ideal candidates for authentication.
The components of a biometric device usually include an input device, a database containing potential matches, and a control program to determine the action based on authentication results. Different configurations exist for various applications, however essentially the core components vary very slightly.
The Importance of Access Control
Security is always an important consideration, whether it is locking a car door, or a much larger scale like protecting sensitive information. As security has become progressively tighter, there is always the potential to work around the system. Therefore security has evolved into a hierarchical structure; access control is always either the first or second tier.
Access control devices, as the name would suggest, are used to restrict access to areas or devices for security purposes. It is usually the most stringent level of security, as once crossed the security levels tend to get less uncompromising.
The advantage of biometric security is the difficulty involved in beating the system, as compared to more conventional security systems. As can be expected, duplicating a person’s fingerprints to game a biometric system poses more complexity than cracking a computer password.
Fingerprints have long been used by law enforcement to identify individuals with respect to a criminal investigation. Fingerprint evidence can be used to effectively convict a person of a crime, which is a fair indication of their reliability.
For two sets of prints to be considered a match, there have to be a certain number of corresponding elements, like whorls or islands in the prints. These elements, known as minutiae or Galton Points, named after Sir Francis Galton, are the characteristics of a print which can be used for comparison. The condition is enforced to rule out the possibility of coincidentally similar markings on two different individuals. If the criterion is not satisfied, the match is not conclusive.
Prints are usually captured using an optical input device, which takes a picture of the print. The print is then compared against all the prints in the database. The comparison uses an algorithm to sort through the database and identify potential matches.
Fingerprint scanners are quite commonplace now, even as peripheral devices retailed in computer stores. Some laptops, like Sony Vaio and Lenovo machines, have the scanner built into the device, allowing a user to implement biometric identification for access control.
Iris recognition is the technology used to photograph the iris of an individual and compare it to a database of stored matches. The scanner uses a black-and-white camera with a low-level light to illuminate the eye for a clear picture. The scanners have immense ranges, so there is no need to stand too close to the machine, nor is there any physical contact necessary.
An individual’s irises are completely unique, regardless of whether they are related or not. In fact, no two irises are the same; not even the left and right eye of the same person. Glasses and contact lenses cannot fool iris scanners, and there are very few operations that can affect the pattern of the iris.
Irises are formed very early in life, and unlike other biometric characteristics, they do not alter with age. This makes an iris recognition system sustainable in the long term. Additionally, iris recognition is not restricted to people with sight; blind people can also use the technology, providing they have irises.
It is perhaps the most commonly used to control access to high-security areas, as it is practically fool-proof. It is also significantly reliable since it uses 240 points of reference for a positive match.
Voice Patterns and Recognition
Voice patterns are unique combinations of behavioural and physiological biometric characteristics. Although a voice pattern is considered behavioural, physiological characteristics like vocal cords, the shape of one’s mouth and lips are all contributors to the eventual sound output. While these characteristics are not enough to positively identify an individual by themselves, together they form a powerful biometric.
Voice recognition is perhaps the only biometric access control technology that doesn’t require specialized input devices. A high-quality microphone and a voice recognition program is all that is required.
However, there are many potential security breaches with regard to voice recognition. Although the unique voice signature is quantifiable, it can be easily tampered with; loud ambient sounds or low-quality inputs tend to interfere with the success of security. Additionally, the physical presence of the individual is not a criterion for matches, so it is quite possible to record a voice, and play it back for the device.
There are other biometric characteristics that can be used for unique identification, like hand geometry and facial recognition. For various reasons such as costs and implementation difficulties, these technologies are not as widespread as the others. However they are under constant development and refinement, with a definite potential for commercial use.