Fidelity examines biometrics

Biometrics is emerging as an alternative for companies to authenticate employees and clients without using passwords.

Biometrics is emerging as an alternative for companies to authenticate employees and clients without using passwords.

One of the companies exploring biometrics is FMR, better known as Fidelity Investments, the largest mutual fund company in the US and one of the world's largest providers of financial services.

About three years ago, Fidelity began to explore biometrics and how the company could benefit from it.

Since then, Fidelity has learned that privacy concerns are real and shared by clients, employees and government regulators.

Consequently, legal, regulatory and social considerations have to be factored in when planning to roll out a biometrics project, something which calls for involvement of human resources specialists, lawyers, executives, clients and employees.

To get users to buy into the technology, was important to educate them about the system and inform them about the company's internal policies for storing, using and disposing of captured biometric information.

Another important lesson is that even biometrics products that look great on paper can totally malfunction in a real-world setting, so thorough testing is critical in this field.

For testing, Fidelity has sought help externally and also done product validation work in-house.

Another challenge Fidelity had to face was how to integrate its existing Unix and mainframe back-end systems with biometric tools that predominantly run on Windows.

Fidelity also has learned during its tests and pilot projects that biometric tools are far from infallible and often get tripped up by factors that are hard to control.

For example, an employee at the company could not use a fingerprint reader successfully because his hands shook too much. A facial recognition tool could not see an employee who has very pale skin, and sometimes changes in lighting force it to malfunction.

Moreover, companies must take into account that shifting identification systems to biometrics often implies an increase in costs, not just related to buying the equipment but also to operating it. Transferring a user's biometrics template over a network and storing it is much more costly than transmitting and storing that same user's personal ID number. Likewise, the maintenance and replacement of biometric devices can often be expensive.

Fidelity has several biometrics projects in pilot phases, and one very large project slated for deployment at some point during the second or third quarter of this year.

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