9/11 Gives Biometrics Big Boost
| By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
It is, indeed, a foul wind that blows no one fair weather. For biometrics security applications, the foul wind was September 11th. As far as fair weather, the analysts are still trying to pin down the revenue multiples for the biometric industry.
Biometric security systems use components common to machine vision systems (cameras, A/D, edge detection/thresholding, etc.) to compare a feature of a person's anatomy to a stored, authenticated transform of that feature in order to confirm their identity. The comparison verifies that the person carrying and using a particular door key or electronic access card is the one person authorized to use that card rather than trusting that the card holding is the same person that was issued the card. A biometric key contains data that mathematically depicts minutia points or ridge patterns in fingerprints; the spatial relationships of facial features like eyes, nose, mouth; the striations and color variances in the iris of the eye; voice patterns, hand and vein (as in blood vein) geometries and more. Prior to September 11th, the lacksidaisical demand for biometric security was partly due to a lack of standards and testing benchmarks with which to compare the various biometric approaches. Another Achilles Heel rested in privacy concerns among the general public. Post September 11th, however, the public's privacy concerns seem to have faded in the face of homeland security, while the agencies concerned with homeland security have determined that biometrics will be a key part of any serious effort to control access in the transportation sector and secure border crossings.
These related market drivers are prompting corporations and government agencies to aggressively pursue biometrics, creating a critical mass that can only be sustained by new standards and aggressive evaluation of the various biometric technologies.
An exploding market
A market report released by Frost & Sullivan (San Jose, CA) cites media attention and heretofore inconceivable public acceptance of biometric security systems as the catalysts for biometric buying frenzy. Biometric revenues are expected to grow from $93.4 million in 2001 to $2.05 billion by 2006. A year ago, that 2006 revenue estimate was in the $700 million range. But while the scale of the market is far different, the application breakdown mirrors that of pre-9/11.
'Access control/time and attendance is expected to continue accounting for a major chunk of revenues. With corporations, government agencies and the military dedicated to averting attacks on information systems, the use of biometrics in network security is also likely to show a related rise,' states the Frost & Sullivan report.
According to the director of public relations for Identix Corp. (Minnetonka, MN), Frances Zelazny, recent US legislation has put real teeth into the demand for biometric security systems. (Identix, traditionally a fingerprint biometric company, recently became the largest biometrics-only system producer by merging with facial recognition biometric company Visionics.) The Aviation and Transportation Security Act signed into law November 2001 required background checks for all airport employees. The result: and increased number of fingerprint readers at airports for checking identities against the FBI's national law enforcement fingerprint database called AFIS. A second phase of this Act requires tighter control systems for access to sensitive areas at airports, and while biometrics are not specifically named as the method for controlling these areas, experts believe biometric keys will be a part these systems.
Next came the Patriot Act, which gave the Department of Justice new powers to enforce existing legislation governing the legal scrutiny of foreign nationals in the US in order to catch individuals on a unified US 'watch list' as determined by several US security agencies. The Patriot Act requires that US agencies use technical means to register and track the movements of foreign nationals crossing US borders. Subsequent legislation called the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act refines the Patriot Act's mention of 'technology' with 'biometric technology' and sets a deadline for all border crossings to have this technology by 2004. 'This was really the watershed event for biometrics because it says how the INS entry program will be implemented,' explained Indentix' Zelazny.
If these pieces were not enough, other pending legislation would put biometric identifiers on a national drivers license in the US, and require it for all port employees in the US. This is all in addition to several national programs around the world aimed at using biometrics to facilitate business travel across borders, such as the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) EZ-Pass and the UK's 'Trusted Traveler' program. (These systems compare travelers against a biometric key encoded on passports and other travel documents to automatically pass travels through border crossings, or feed them to live personnel for further checking.)
Expanding market changes company operations
As the biometric market explodes, veteran companies are changing their product offerings and partnerships in anticipation of increased competition. Just prior to September 11th, Mytec Technologies Inc. and Biometric Identification Inc. merged to form Bioscrypt Inc. (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), which was recently named the largest provider of biometric fingerprint reader systems worldwide surpassing long-time leader Identix Inc. Visionics and Identix announced their nuptials in February of 2002, some five months after the terrorist attacks and industry analysts expect more.
'The merger of [Visionics and Identix] is an apt example of the consolidation expected in the industry,' writes Frost & Sullivan biometrics guru, Prianka Chopra. 'As security and in particular biometrics adoption gains acceptance, many companies will attempt to acquire, partner and invest in biometric companies as a platform for their own growth.'
The wisdom behind mergers in the biometric space is also altering the companies' product offerings. For instance, Identix and Bioscrypt are both complementing their own brand of biometric readers and/or imaging systems with software and algorithm licensing, partnering with larger companies such as Polaroid, Panasonic (Secaucus, NJ), OKI (Tokyo) and NEC (Irving, TX) among others in the security and electronics industries.
The movement away from sensor manufacturer towards hardware partnerships and a deeper software licensing approach is even opening the door for new players such as RVSI (Canton, MA). RVSI has adopted data matrix encoding algorithms used in general machine vision to encode biometric templates on 'dumb' cards, such as paper or other temporary access vehicles. 'We don't see this as competition with smart cards, but rather as a low-cost solution for temporary or contract employees. In cases like these, you don't want the expense of creating a smart card for someone that will just be around for a few months,' said RVSI publicist, Mary Grace Stevens.
Even as they add software solutions and licensing business models, biometric companies continue their efforts to provide biometric readers that leverage existing security infrastructures by maintaining compatibility. 'Wiegand communication is the de facto standard in security, although it's not necessarily very standardized,' notes Bioscrypt's VP of global sales and marketing, Julia Webb. 'We make sure that all our readers can communicate in all Wiegand formats, but there are hundreds of them. For example, Northern Computers [Oak Creek, WI] might have a 34-bit format, while HID Corp. has a 35-bit format.'
Enough room for everyone?
All the major players are striving to streamline business practices, product offerings, and their system integration with existing IT infrastructure to capitalize on the blooming biometric market. For example, major suppliers of fingerprint readers are moving on mass from the optical sensors traditionally used in fingerprint readers to cheaper CMOS-based capacitance and thermal sensors, rewriting or expanding their algorithms as necessary. Iris and facial biometric systems are moving away from supplying turnkey systems to partnering with major camera suppliers and focusing on licensing their algorithms to larger hardware suppliers and distributors.
In many economic cases, this 'streamlining' can lead to fewer product offerings across a given industry. However, based the early position of biometrics on the technology acceptance curve, biometric applications likely will vary enough to allow several fiscally successful approaches. For instance, Iridian Technologies (Moorestown, NJ) CEO Bill Voltmer believes iris biometrics will be less dependent on closed loop search biometric systems that compare a person against a stored template, a template typically stored on a smart card or relatively small local database. 'All other biometrics have limited amounts of data that they can use to do matching of a one-to-many search. Facial recognition does a one to many and comes up with several faces as potential matches. The same is true for [minutia] based fingerprints. Iris does a one-to-many and comes back with exactly one match.' A study by the UK's National Physical Laboratory in 2001 confirms that - based solely on performance - iris biometrics lead the pack.
Pure performance does not always guarantee a lion's share of the market, however. As Bioscrypt's Webb points out, a Homeland Security task force charged with mapping the development of biometric security in airports and ports is mainly concerned with developing metrics and standards for one-to-one comparisons where a person is compared to a biometric template on a smart card, or proximity card with radio frequency ID tag. Within the traditional biometric niche - fingerprints - privacy versus security concerns are fueling different approaches among the main vendors with Identix using a minutia based approach that is compatible with the FBI's national database, and Bioscrypt using a non-AFIS compatible ridge pattern approach that is more exact and does not lend itself conspiracy theories where government is able to track a persons every movement from a central location.
While the changing face of security in post-9/11 America is still hidden amongst much uncertainty, the market penetration of biometric security systems will certainly make a market performer out of a nascent industry. Emerging standards are likely to encourage competition while boosting the acceptance of a variety of different technical approaches, resulting in more mergers between larger electronic company newcomers and smaller biometric veterans in marriages where everyone benefits.
Robotic Vision Systems Inc. (RVSI)
5 Shawmut Road
Canton, MA 02021
1 781 302 2439
Frost & Sullivan
1040 East Brokaw Road
San Jose, CA 95131-2309 USA
5600 Rowland Road
Minnetonka, MN 55343
Phone (952) 932-0888
Fax (952) 932-7181
5000 Van Nuys Blvd., Suite 300
Sherman Oaks, CA U.S.A. 91403
One Panasonic Way
Secaucus, NJ 07094-2917
7-12, Toranomon 1-chome, Minato-ku
6555 N. Hwy. 161
Irving, TX 75039-2402
Toll Free: 800-338-9549
Iridian Technologies Inc.
121 Whittendale Drive, Suite B
Moorestown, New Jersey, 08057 USA
1-866-IRIDIAN or 1-856-222-9090 - inside US
1-856-222-9090 - international
Northern Computers, Inc.
135 West Forest Hills Avenue
Oak Creek, WI 53154
9292 Jeronimo Road
Irvine, CA 92618