Companies need not be afraid of the 'b' word. Jane Dudman investigates how biometrics can be put to commercial use
Biometric identifiers have previously played little part in most commercial companies' operations. But that could be set to change rapidly, as both the government and private sector firms begin to implement increasing numbers of systems to measure biological data, using voice recognition, facial imaging, iris and fingerprint scanning.
Experts in the field believe that a biometric identifier needs core attributes: it must be universal, consistent, unique, permanent and reasonably easy to collect and compare. It must also be a characteristic that is acceptable to check and it must be hard to circumvent or to imitate. Most experts reckon that some form of ID based on hands or fingers meets these attributes.
The government is currently working on several biometrics projects, notably in the area of border control. Like other countries, the UK is looking to introduce biometric identifiers into passports as a way of increasing control and in line with demands from the US, although its deadline has slipped.
Already under way in the UK is the £2.86m Iris Recognition Immigration System being run by French firm Sagem. This project is being implemented initially at Heathrow's terminals 2 and 4, where regular travellers who are not EU passport holders will be able to bypass queues by registering their iris patterns.
At present, the main commercial uses of biometrics are in the areas of control, identification and security. Time and attendance systems, security control and access control are the key areas in which biometric systems have so far been implemented.
Sometimes these systems can also be used in other ways. Biometric specialist Steria says several casinos in Las Vegas have installed facial imaging software to identify potential troublemakers, but the systems can also be used to spot welcome high rollers, who can then be given preferential treatment.
Neil Norman, managing director of Liverpool-based biometric specialist Human Recognition Systems, thinks opportunities are opening up for biometrics in other areas, particularly pharmaceuticals.
"We have a client in Ireland, a big pharmaceutical manufacturer, that used to rely on paper-based signatures to register that a part of the process had been completed," he says.
"Now that has been digitised and is done via iris recognition. It is quicker, more secure and provides a much better audit trail for compliance with the regulatory framework. The other advantage is no longer having to maintain and store two million signatures a year."
Norman says there are few uses for biometric systems in the more general consumer market at the moment. "Some clubs have toyed with the idea on a fairly minor scale, but in general the consumer market is more sensitive," he says. "Someone needs to go out there, take the heat and point out that there is nothing scary in all this."
That "someone" is most likely to be the government. Norman believes that as biometric systems start to be implemented at border controls, we will all become more used to them as part of everyday life and only then will a wider range of more commercial uses be introduced.
In the meantime, the key applications for biometric systems remain security and access control. Regulations are a key driver.
"Employers are supposed to know which employees are in the building at any one time," says Nicholas Newitt, company secretary of Yorkshire sportswear retailer Newitts, which employs 50 staff and which has implemented a finger-scan time and attendance system. "With the biometric system, we can get that information in 30 seconds."
The advantages of biometric systems include improved security. Such systems can be used to ensure that only specific staff are allowed access into particular parts of the workplace. Biometric time and attendance systems are more secure than ID card systems because cards can be swapped, or carried in by colleagues and swiped through the system - a practice known as buddy clocking. It is harder (although not impossible) to fake a fingerprint.
Biometric systems can also be used in relatively low security situations to enable people to access places. Health clubs, for instance, can use biometric readers to let customers in without them having to carry a card.
In that instance, a biometric system may be accepted fairly readily, but it can often be difficult to implement. Employees can be wary about having their personal details stored. Employers usually approach this problem through a mix of carrot and stick.
"We asked the workforce about implementing the system and no-one objected," says Newitt. "It means they don't have to find a card to get into work. It is one less thing to think about."
Norman says human resources issues have to be considered. "We do encounter some objections, but they are often based on misunderstanding," he says.
"We don't dismiss those concerns, but we try to engage with the people concerned in an adult fashion. We point out that all systems, including biometric systems, are subject to existing data protection laws."
Mark Yadegar, director of Romsey Associates, which supplies biometrics systems for a wide range of uses, says finger-scanning systems are cheaper than most companies realise. "There is a perception that these are expensive systems," he says.
Yadegar estimates that a fingerprint system for 70 users, operating at three entry points, would cost around £12,000, including the cost of software. However, he says that, as in other areas, users get what they pay for and he believes it is worth companies investing in more reliable, high quality equipment. He also warns that companies need to ensure they are putting biometric systems into appropriate situations.
"A lot of manufacturers have claimed that these systems will do everything and people then put them into situations where they won't work," says Yadegar. "For example, many biometric readers will not work outside in low temperatures, but people want to put them on a wall and think they will work all the time.
"There are other instances where companies have put fingerprint scanners on their manufacturing shop floor, where there is dirt and grease. It is not surprising that systems do not perform properly in that environment."
Yadegar thinks those in the industry should be more honest with their clients about what will and will not work in this area, in order to ensure that more potential customers understand the benefits of these systems.
"The technology has come a long way in the past two or three years," he says. "Costs have to come down a bit more, but not a lot. But the performance of these systems is acceptable now and I think companies like us have to start presenting more examples of biometric applications to users."
One area where Yadegar feels corporates are missing out by not looking at biometrics is controlling access to PCs. At the moment, he points out, many large organisations, with large numbers of staff who use many different applications, are struggling with the problem of password-based security.
"In many corporates, the bane of the life of most IT groups is the issue of passwords generally," he says. "Using biometrics to enable people to access systems can get round that, but a lot of companies will not implement a biometric system because they think a price of about £100 a laptop is a lot of money."
If companies investigated the time and money they would save, the benefits of biometric-based system control would be clear, says Yadegar.
"The investment can certainly be justified," he says. "The payback is normally less than 12 months, depending on how many systems customers are buying. The critical factor is how many different systems people have to log into. The more systems they have, the more difficult password-based control becomes."
Case study: Finger work at Ethnic Cuisine
Swansea-based Ethnic Cuisine supplies chilled ready meals to one of the UK's major supermarket chains. It employs more than 400 staff, most of whom are paid weekly, and has implemented a biometric-based time and attendance system, which takes a fingerprint scan of workers as they arrive and leave.
Previously, Ethnic Cuisine had a manual system in which managers completed time sheets for their employees. The move to a fully automated system has not been an easy adjustment for staff. Before, if someone came in at five past six, their team leader would sign them in at six, but now, if they are in at three minutes past, they will be paid from quarter past, explains the firm's financial controller, Nick Tagg. That was always the rule, but it was not adhered to.
Tagg acknowledges that staff were worried about moving to a finger-scanning system. Their big concern was that their fingerprints would be kept on a database, he says. The firm has tackled this by emphasising the advantages. "They can press a button and see how many hours they have clocked up, so there are no nasty surprises on pay day," says Tagg. "They can also pre-plan their holidays."
The new software is now working very well, but it did take a reasonable amount of time to settle in, explains Tagg. One problem was it could not, initially, read the fingers of about 10 individuals, but this has now been solved.
There have been major benefits for Ethnic Cuisine. Data from the new system goes directly into the payroll system, cutting down on administrative overheads. But the real benefit has been in increased productivity.
"We work in teams, and you need everyone on the team to be there, to make the effort," says Tagg. "Now it has settled in, we are getting much better productivity.
"The system paid for itself in four weeks. I was staggered by the difference."
International Association for Biometrics
Website includes a useful glossary of terms
UK Biometrics Working Group
Part of the UK National Technical Authority for Information Assurance
Biometrics and air travel
OECD Information, Computer and Communications Policy Committee material
International Biometric Group
The Biometric Consortium
US organisation with introduction to biometric technology and links to biometric activities
This was first published in July 2005