Biometric business security goes beyond Bond

By Michael Millar
Business reporter

image caption"Now pay attention 007": You may think biometric security is something Q would recommend for James Bond - but should you be thinking about it?

Until fairly recently many people using fingerprint or retinal scanners to get through doors would have done so to an exciting soundtrack and almost certainly have very good teeth and hair.

The use of such biometric devices was the domain of Hollywood films, as companies and governments tried to thwart suave secret agents intent on subterfuge.

Biometric verification involves identifying someone through one of their unique biological traits.

These include everything from a fingerprint, iris, retina, or outline of a hand, to ear shape, voice patterns, and even body odour.

Biometric benefit

Proponents of biometrics, such as Cyrille Bataller, director of Accenture Technology Labs Europe, say companies see benefits in terms of security, automation and convenience.

"It's a very secure way of assessing identity," he says. "You are also delegating control to a machine, rather than having to have face-to-face manual check."

"This makes it convenient because you don't need to carry a card or pay someone at the entrance to read an ID," he adds.

The biometrics industry claims there has been a sharp increase in the number of companies protecting their workplaces with this kind of technology.

This is not surprising but until recently much biometric technology was not fit for purpose.

image captionBiometric verification identifies people using biological traits - including the unique patterns in our eyes

"Before you couldn't count on the biometric solution - we saw a lot of what is known in the industry as false rejection rates," says Itay Langer from Israeli firm BioGuard.

"In the past if you didn't put the finger in at the same angle as you originally did, it wouldn't let you in," he says. "If you had a weaker fingerprint - for example, if you did a lot of manual labour or had diabetes - you'd have a problem."

Big Brother

There are several other good reasons businesses decided a biometric solution wasn't worth the effort on the past.

These include legal concerns over collecting highly personal information from staff, and fears that multiple people touching the same machine could spread illness and disease, particularly in the healthcare sector.

Then there is the major problem of convincing staff that allowing an employer to take these unique details won't plunge them into an Orwellian nightmare of surveillance and profiling.


Keeping the right people out and letting the right people in remains the chief raison d'etre of biometrics, and products have been developed that would make James Bond gadget chief 'Q' proud.

Now you can buy scanners that will register you accurately if you put your finger on the reader upside down or even back-to-front.

They have also become more affordable, with good products starting at around $200 (£122) per door reader, going up to around $1,000.

image captionBioGuard's ID-Pod scans the veins in the hand to identify people

One of BioGuard's premium products is a $1,600 scanner which maps the veins inside your hand to make sure you are who you say you are.

"It sends an infrared light into your hand, which is harmless, it's just light," Mr Langer explains.

This also helps overcome concerns amongst staff that they will have to touch something dirty, he says.

He adds that in some places anyone other than police taking fingerprints is taboo, including Canada "where they don't want anything to do with fingerprint [technology]".

Health and safety

But biometrics can be useful for more than securing a strong room or server centre (two of the places most commonly associated with biometric security).

Firms can now put biometric readers on laptops and even printers, scanners and photocopiers.

Property developer, Ollie McGovern, created a handheld biometric reader to manage the movements of the workforce on his sites and ensure they adhered to health and safety regulations.

His Simeio fingerprint reader, which is principally used in the construction industry, is designed to make sure those entering a site have appropriate health and safety training.

"In the UK, for example, health and safety regulation is getting more and more onerous and employers are guilty until proven innocent if someone gets hurt," he says.

image captionThe Simeio fingerprint reader checks that workers have the right health and safety training

"So when contractors use the Simeio to clock in it will check whether they have the right training, insurance, and equipment to be on site," he explains.

The device can also act as an attendance monitor, which could defuse arguments over how much time a worker has spent on site.

Tara Sheehan, from building and transport firm Sheehan Contractors, uses the Simeio and says she "can't put a price" on the benefits her firm derives from its health and safety features.

"Daily it will remind staff to have the high visibility equipment they have to wear on a daily basis," she says.

"It shows we have done as much as humanely possible to ask them if they have the right equipment and we have a record that we are doing our part."

But like most firms she encountered suspicion of biometrics, particularly from older staff.

"They thought we were Big Brother - watching where they were and what they were doing all day," she says.

"But once they could see it was saving us money in the tough climate we were in they were more accepting. After a few days of moaning they accepted it," she adds.

But other workers are not so understanding and devices that attract such suspicion are inevitably going to face close scrutiny from legal authorities.

Suspicious minds

"In Europe there is a general expectation that employers will carry out a risk assessment before they introduce biometrics, so that they can be confident that the inevitable interference with privacy will be proportionate," says Stewart Room, partner at law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse.

"They need to be sure that they are using biometrics for a legitimate purpose and that there is not a less privacy invasive way of achieving their goals," he adds.

In some European countries, such as Germany, there is also an expectation that the employer will consult with workers' representatives on biometrics.

In other countries, such as France, the roll out of any such plans will have to be approved by the national data protection regulator.

Advanced biometrics systems, such as those used by BioGuard and Simeio, never hold a picture of a finger print or suchlike, as the image is immediately encoded into binary and the photograph destroyed.

This makes it less likely companies will fall foul of data protection legislation.

"It's not possible to re-engineer the fingerprint," says Simeio's McGovern. "The information has no value and there's nothing you could do with it even if you are a super techie."

All of which means super spies will have to return to traditional skills, such as lifting fingerprints off martini glasses to get the job done.

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