Biometrics? Convenience, and the Acceptance of Risk Will Have to Overcome the "Insecurity Factor" if Widespread Implementation is to Succeed
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Biometrics debuted as a payment method in 2000, with systems focusing on 
fingerprint scanners that linked individuals to their checking accounts.  A person 
enrolling in the system provided ID to a teller, who then entered the information 
into a proprietary database, took the person’s picture and scanned his finger into 
the system. The customer entered a 10-digit code that enabled the system to locate 
the scan for verification.  After enrollment, the customer could cash checks and 
otherwise access their funds by scanning his finger and having the merchant 
scan his check.

Iterations of this system, some involving retinal scans, voice recognition, more 
detailed finger scans, and signatures, have proliferated since this early example, 
always with the promise that transactions, personal data, and biometric identifiers 
will be protected.  But concerns over security, specifically the security of biometric 
data– have stalled implementation in many markets.

Biometrics has great initial appeal – it’s easy, sophisticated, sexy – and potentially 
powerful.  In some markets, customers can register multiple credit cards, checking 
accounts, savings accounts - even lines of credit -  as sources for payment via 
biometric ID.  Yet, truly secure biometric authentication – the one thing that 
would facilitate widespread acceptance -  is illusive.

A decade ago, I had a conversation with a researcher at Battelle labs.  He was 
engaged with the four credit card associations, the feds and other interested 
parties in the study of signature dynamics – that is, the stroke, pressure, speed 
and curvature involved in creating it.   They were considering various biometric 
attributes, as well as applications across a broad spectrum, from facilities access 
to the launching of rockets.

The study also encompassed thumb and fingerprint, voice and retinal.  But it 
became apparent that retinal,  fingerprint and voice could all be readily duplicated.  
The one entity that could not be adequately duplicated is the way a signature is 
produced – the signature dynamic.

That was ten years ago- before ubiquitous Internet use, and before the elevation 
of hacking to an advanced science.  Hacking then was a physical intrusion – 
generally a disgruntled employee or thief.  And the stakes were more modest: 
systems were generally closed loops, with no wide Internet access.  And even if 
there were Internet access, the quantity of data resident on those systems 
was much less.

Today, open architecture and wide access are the new norm.  What hasn’t changed 
is that the signature dynamic algorithm remains the most secure form of personal 
identification.  But because that data has to be stored, and dispersal of that information 
is potentially global, significant vulnerabilities are, at least at this juncture, inevitable.

The problem is not interception of data at the point of transmission – encryption is 
generally effective in preventing this breach.  The vulnerability is at the point where 
signature dynamic meets authentication.

The Battelle study concluded that, although it was the securest method, signature 
dynamics was, at the time, too costly to implement due to data storage requirements 
and the size of the algorithm required for authentication.

Since then, storage capacity, and computing capacity, have grown exponentially to 
bring signature dynamics back into the realm of feasibility.  The size of the algorithm, 
and the size of the signature dynamic are still huge, but the computing capacity to 
manage them has expanded, and miniaturized.

Still, the point at which person biometric data is stored remains a serious security 
challenge, given the universal access that’s necessary for payment systems to function.   
Every security process has a flaw, and this one is huge.   All of the technology involved 
with these systems, as well as myriads of schemes to defeat them – is available at 
public libraries and online.

An episode of the popular show “Alias” showed the extraction of a fingerprint image 
from a sheet of paper, transfer to a mold, and the creation of a duplicate to gain access 
to sensitive computer data.  It succeeded on the show, and it works in real life as well.

Stored biometric data, and the tools for accessing itmust be linked through some
communications methodology in order to provide the authentication required for a 
transaction.  At present, there is no failsafe means to prevent the theft of stored data 
from those with criminal intent – particularly if they are well financed.  A quick scan 
(pun intended) of the headlines of the past year supports this conclusion definitively.

For this reason, except in extraordinary “no-choice” circumstances, (employment, 
government agencies, etc.) biometrics will continue to encounter substantial 
consumer resistance.

It is a similar story with RFID and contactless card technology –both concepts 
promise great convenience, but at their core, they’re just one more single- function 
card.  I, frankly, don’t need another single function card in my wallet with utility 
indistinct from the others.

Which may, after all, be the key.  If there are multiple, valued uses on a single 
identifier – something quickly and positively identifying me – that might be enough 
of an added value to tip the balance in favor of widespread biometric ID acceptance. 
If one instrument could provide access to the office, the car, personal funds, medical
information, and insurance, that might be sufficient to overcome, at least in the minds 
of consumers, the risks inherent in data storage.   Everything in life, after all, is a 
trade-off.  If this occurred, the biometric instrument would effectively replace the 
social security number.  Whether that would be a positive development is the 
subject of another essay.

Absent this extraordinary “multi-purpose” convenience, the consuming public will 
have to become far more accepting of risk for the balance to tip in favor of biometrics.  
And if this does occur, the public will have to accept responsibility for the close monitoring 
of financial and personal data, Tools to correct problems will also have to be far more 
readily available than they are at present.

In the pre-biometric era, merchants, banks and customers all knew each other.  
Today, most transactions are not between familiar parties, and payment methods 
must accommodate this reality. There is great convenience in biometric payment 
technology, but for implementation to be widespread in the way, say that ATMs enjoy, 
one of two things must occur.  It must either provide a unique and exceptional level of
convenience, or there must be definitive security that trumps the perception of high risk. 
Neither is on the horizon.

According to the International Biometric Group, LLC, 
total biometric industry revenues were $1.5 billion in 2005.   
According to the group’s 2006 report, the biometric technology 
that predominates for consumer identification within the 
financial sector is “hand geometry.”

Biff Matthews is President of Thirteen Inc, the parent company of 
CardWare International.  He is one of 12 founding members of the ETA, 
serving on its board, advisory board and committees.  (740) 522-2150