Biometrics Comes to Life

By O'Sullivan, Orla | ABA Banking Journal, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Biometrics Comes to Life


O'Sullivan, Orla, ABA Banking Journal


One might expect consumers to resist any institution's request that they offer up part of their anatomy for review, especially if this was a prerequisite to gaining access to what is rightfully theirs. Fingerprinting, for Instance, carries Orwellian, if not downright, criminal connotations.

Banks and others who have tested biometric-based security on their clientele, however, say consumers overwhelmingly have a pragmatic response to the technology. Anything that saves the information-overloaded citizen from having to remember another password or personal identification number comes as a welcome respite. Adding a statistical footing to this anecdotal evidence, a nationwide survey by Columbia University reported that 83% of people approve of the use of finger imaging, and don't feel it treats people as criminals.

There are, of course, cultural nuances to which institutions must be sensitive. As Ben Miller, publisher of the Personal identification Newsletter and biometrics consultant, puts it, "I think the Feds love it, they think Its cool, whereas if you tried to impose biometrics in a creative workplace, like Apple Computer, they might see it as Big Brother."

Another surprise is that the United States is a late adopter of biometrics -- a term which describes automated methods of establishing someone's identity from their unique physiological or behavioral characteristic(s). A distinction is made between recognition -- a database search for a match -- and authentication, where the search is whittled down by the user first giving a name or PIN to identify themselves.

John Parselle, managing director of Fingerscan Pty Ltd., Sydney, Australia, reckons U.S. banks lag their foreign counter-parts partly because the market here is not so consolidated and it is harder for smaller players to invest in biometrics. To date, the order of adoption has been Australia, followed by South Africa, South America, Europe, and the U.S., he says.

That said, Parselle notes, "there's a huge amount of interest by banks around the world in biometrics right now."

Parselle,s firm, a subsidiary of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Identix Inc., recently won what he says is the biggest bank contract for biometric security. Fingerscan is working with the Bank of Central Asia, in Jakarta, Indonesia, to replace numeric passwords for employees at 500 branches with fingerprint-based system access. The bank is Indonesia's second largest and the contract is expected ultimately to be worth $8 million, Parselle says.

Fingerscan also has the world's largest application of biometrics In the servicing of automated teller machines. In conjunction with a contractor called Armaguard, which services ATMs for Australian banks, 1,400 ATMs now are unlocked by the representative's fingerprint. The representative brings a portable scanning device that plugs into the back of the ATM and connects to the bank's server, which grants him admittance. Unequivocally identifying who entered and how long he stayed helps keep the representative honest, Parselle says.

Internal fraud is a bigger problem for banks than is external fraud, Parselle maintains, adding, "All commercial applications of our technology are for internal use." (Indeed, sources at Atalla Inc., a hardware security division of Tandem Computers, estimate that 70%. of fraud is an inside job.)

Last November, a leading government supplier of biometric technology enhanced its finger-based identification system to add an extra security layer to the log-on process for Windows NT. The system, NRIdentity, also works with Unisys's Navigator software.

Its supplier, The National Registry Inc., says it is in contract negotiations with domestic and foreign banks. "Password maintenance alone is a huge burden for companies," says Colleen Madigan, director of marketing with the St. Petersburg, Fla., firm . A "top 100, East Coast bank" plans to use the technology initially to replace passwords, and later to authorize wire transfers and Identify customers, she added. …

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