As Feds Embrace Biometrics, Commercial Sector Still Not Ready for Prime Time

As Feds Embrace Biometrics, Commercial Sector Still Not Ready for Prime Time

During the more than 20 years I have been involved in the security industry, I have witnessed several industry “coming out parties” for biometric technologies.
My first real experience with biometrics in a real-world application was in 1996 at the Atlanta-hosted Olympic Games. Recognition Systems had its hand geometry devices set up at the entrances of each venue to verify both spectators and athletes. I remember seeing fingerprint readers being used at a Minnesota high school in 1999 to speed up the check out process for books at the student library.
And of course who will ever forget the biometric feeding frenzy that surrounded the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Facial recognition became the security industry’s savior and a media darling. Several companies pushed product that fell far below technical expectations but were certainly huge short-term earners on Wall Street. When the technology failed to deliver, repercussions impacted the solid biometric applications for years after.

Having attended the annual Biometric Consortium Conference held late last month in Tampa, and attended by more than 2,000 security professionals, mostly from the Department of Defense, NSA, FBI and other government agencies, it was evident that biometrics has reemerged as a top technology priority for the federal government. I saw the latest in fingerprint, gait and face recognition, voice, vein and signature verification, hand geometry, iris and retina scans. Will this government boon spur a migration to the commercial market?

“The federal government is the one driving force in what is biometrics today,” says Russ Ryan, vice president of marketing for the National Biometric Security Project. “From its secure border programs to the safe traveler initiatives, it is the Feds who are at the forefront of igniting advanced research and development, as well as creating industry standards to benefit the users.”

Ryan is critical of the biometrics’ industry lack of substantive growth in the commercial sector, admitting that it essentially was its own worst enemy following the terrorist attacks of 2001. “You have to look at the structure of the industry prior to the 9/11 attacks. There were close to 100 biometric companies that were essentially R&D labs with little or no resources,” he says. “Many of these companies, who were nothing more than small device entrepreneurs, tried to leverage the events of 9/11 and began flooding the market with biometrics that were big on claims but short on substance. As a result of this post-9/11 biometrics hysteria, a lot of products that failed to live up to their hype created a great deal of disillusionment among many users.”

While Paul Easton, Communications Director for UKB International Ltd., a UK-based company that provides access security products and services with a specialty in biometrics, may agree with Ryan’s assessment of government influence, he sees a more robust picture for the commercial sector. “The Feds have driven biometric technology in the past. Indeed, the technology behind our multi-spectral sub-dermal scanner was developed in part with Fed dollars,” he says. “But that model is changing. Some of the most exciting technological advances this year have come out of Asia, and are aimed at the consumer rather than government.

“Yes, Fed dollars are vital to development and yes, the big Fed projects are vital to public acceptance of biometric technology, but let’s not dismiss the boots on the ground,” he continues. “There are vendors who are taking biometric technology into homes and workplaces on a daily basis.”

Easton adds that he is constantly asked by the media about the future of biometric technologies. “Until recently, we would speculate on emerging technologies and their possible application,” he says. “Increasingly, we are saying ‘Forget crystal ball gazing. We have the tools to deliver results right here, right now. Let’s be about it.’”

If you have any questions or comments for Steve Lasky regarding this or any other security industry-related issue, please e-mail him at