Tech Trends

Biometrics is one of those areas of security technology whose roots go back a ways, but whose best days are yet to come. I can remember getting fingerprinted prior to my Air Force ROTC summer camp years ago (won’t say how many); and taking my kids to the local police station to get their prints on file — for all the right reasons, I might add.

Since then, fingerprint technology has subtly made its way into our daily lives through consumer products, which drive technology acceptance and lower costs. How many of your laptops have a fingerprint reader on them? It has become quite common.

Beyond, electronic scanning now captures multiple fingers, single finger rolls and flat features. It has been provisioned in mobile applications and in harsh environments, allowing for quicker identification and apprehension of criminals. Fingerprint reading is the granddaddy biometric on steroids. And biometric technology has spread…along several dimensions.

Scanning the Hand

A full hand scanner can capture an image of the palm, almost as if it was one giant finger. Systems are now available which produce a splice-free, continuous capture of the whole hand from the wrist to the fingerprints — a “fingerprint” of the hand, if you will. If we move from the surface of the hand to the interior of the hand, what do you see?...Veins! And that is precisely what the medical center at New York University is using to verify the identity of patients at their healthcare facilities. Near-infrared light emits energy, some of which is reflected and some which is absorbed by the veins, creating dark lines on the pale background of the hand. By capturing the vein pattern, not only are patients verified and identity theft reduced, but the implementation and delivery of treatment can be accelerated.

“Vein patterns are 100 times more unique than fingerprints… It not only protects privacy and enhances quality, but will transform the patient experience,” says Dr. Bernard A. Birnbaum, Chief of Hospital Operations at NYU.
Another full hand technique, hand geometry, is like a dimensioned CAD drawing, using geometric measurements of the hand to produce a print-like depiction. Deployed at more than 8,000 locations including immigration facilities, its suitability for security has been bolstered by its speed and low-profile nature, but is offset by limitations in accuracy.

The Eyes Have It

Wikipedia notes that, “The iris of the eye has been described as the ideal part of the human body for biometric identification for several reasons: It is an internal organ that is well protected against damage and wear by a highly transparent and sensitive membrane, the cornea. This distinguishes it from fingerprints, which can be difficult to recognize after years of certain types of manual labor.”

Iris scans produce the optical equivalent of the fingerprint. Unlike fingerprints, it is a non-contact technology, and the target surface does not tend to wear, allowing for longevity of the image. However, the scanning equipment can be expensive, require adjustment, may be sensitive to ambient lighting conditions and have susceptibility to spoofing with high-quality images (fake copies) of the eye.

If you compare a palm surface scan vs. a vein scan of the hand, it may help to understand retinal scanning. Infrared light illuminating the the retina is absorbed more readily than the surrounding tissue and creates a distinctive pattern of the eye. This technology is becoming more mainstream, and may now be found in prisons, bank ATMs and other commercial applications.

For both iris and retinal scanning, there is some concern about repeated exposure to near-infrared light, and those effects need to be quantified and understood.

Face Scanning

Some companies have developed proficiency in searching along analytic lines, but alerts based on facial recognition have not proven broadly effective. Also, the conditions for face capture will limit the number of faces processed. These may include requiring good lighting, stable images, limited IP video compression, both ears visible, and proper angle and field of view. Disguises and even facial expressions may alter effectiveness.

New 3-D techniques are providing better definition of facial features, such as nose and chin, and relax some of the current physical constraints, such as lighting and viewing angle. Another technique, skin texture analysis, also promises performance enhancements.

The game changer on our doorstep, though, may be Facebook. Their recently implemented facial recognition technology enables you to group similar faces together and automatically suggests “friends” for tagging. Your photo is tagged by your “friends,” without your prior approval, and it is up to you to opt out of this service.

Google, Microsoft, Apple and Sony all have introduced facial recognition as features in some of their products. No doubt, this will stir controversy as the public catches on, but it will also drive increasing use of the technology and likely new applications

As biometric technologies continue to improve in accuracy, application and cost, expect them to continue to enter the main stream of public use.

Ray Coulombe is Founder and Managing Director of, enabling interaction with specifiers in the physical security and ITS markets; and Principal Consultant for Gilwell Technology Services. Ray can be reached at or through LinkedIn.