February 09, 2001, 11:41 AM — ONCE THE STUFF FOUND ONLY in James Bond movies, biometrics -- identification technologies based on biological features -- is rapidly moving into the mainstream to help prevent unauthorized access to ATMs, computers, buildings and other important assets. Propelled by cheaper and better software and hardware, as well as enhancing security and eliminating pesky passwords, biometrics, many experts believe, will become increasingly popular during the next few years. "PINs and passwords can be lost, but it's hard to misplace your hands, face or eyes," says James Wayman, director emeritus of the U.S. National Biometrics Test Center and a biometrics researcher at San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif.
The biometrics market has skyrocketed, rising from just $6.6 million in 1990 to $63 million in 1999, according to Wayman. During the same time span, the average unit cost for biometrics devices dropped from more than $5,000 to less than $600. But as biometrics gain momentum, many CIOs still wonder which of the major technologies -- fingerprint, iris or facial recognition -- is best. Others worry about how much of a trade-off between security and personal privacy people will be willing to accept.
Fingerprint readers are the most widely used and least expensive biometrics technology. Complete systems can cost less than $100, says Martin Reynolds, a vice president and research fellow at Gartner Dataquest, a technology market research company in San Jose, Calif. "They're also reliable and very rugged," he adds. The units are so reliable, in fact, that they will accurately match fingerprints even when a user gains weight or ages.
In Connecticut, fingerprint scanning already helps the state government snare welfare cheats. The Connecticut Department of Social Services uses a Polaroid identification system that creates digital fingerprint images of welfare recipients. While the system records and matches the fingerprints (to determine whether an individual may already be receiving benefits under another identity), the operator photographs the applicant and records the person's signature. The matching process takes less than five minutes, after which the applicant receives a photo ID card. To safeguard against false readings, a fingerprint expert (in this case, a Guilford, Conn., police officer) reanalyzes questionable matches.
The program, which launched in 1996, has saved taxpayers approximately $23 million in its first three years of operation, says David Mintie, the project's program manager.