What’s stopping biometrics technology from truly going mainstream? Asked participants at a recent IET roundtable discussion
Nearly a decade ago, biometrics industry consultant Clive Reedman attended a seminar proudly proclaiming that year to be the ‘year of biometrics’. It’s far from the first time we’ve heard such claims made, but ten years on, general acceptance of biometrics still feels lukewarm. What’s stopping the technology from truly going mainstream? How much of its development is ‘finished’ and how many more problems are there to solve?
These were the questions posed during a discussion with leading figures from industry, academia and the media at IET London: Savoy Place last month as part of the launch of the IET’s new biometrics journal.
You can view footage of the full ‘Biometrics – bridging the gap between academia and industry’ on IET.tv and below is a summary of the proceedings.
One of the reasons for launching the journal IET Biometrics was that the biometrics sector has suffered from having no single focal point for cutting-edge research and hasn’t shared knowledge across industry and academia as effectively as it could have done. The discussion certainly touched on how this has had a negative impact on the sector, but the conversation ranged widely over other areas too.
Participants agreed that tabloid scaremongering on identity-theft, promoting a dystopian, science-fiction view of science and technology remain major influences on public attitudes towards biometrics, seeding confusion between identification and verification rather than concentrating on lauding the positives, dispelling mistrust and weeding-out mixed messages.
Yet biometrics is all around us – fingerprint readers have been present on business and consumer devices such as laptops and smartphones for over a decade now. Dr Peter Waggett, project leader for IBM's Emerging Technology Programme and chairman of the BSI Biometrics Group, suggested that lack of interest in the likes of laptop fingerprint readers is rarely due to fear of ‘big brother’; it’s simply just as easy to set a password.
There’s also a significant difference in blame targeting points out Dr Lynne Coventry, PaCT Lab director at the University of Northumbria. If a user forgets their password they blame themselves; if a user fails to correctly position their finger in a fingerprint reader they will blame the technology.
Reedman suggested that this lack of consumer interest is simply down to marketing where biometrics is perceived as a high-security tool reserved for sensitive business, rather than one of simple convenience. The key to acceptance is making people excited rather than constantly linking biometrics to ‘boring’ things such as ID cards and passports.
So is the key to public acceptance really a case of ‘sexing it up’? Coventry pointed out that we live in a world dominated by Facebook, and while the site’s dabbling in face recognition was met with overwhelming negativity, acceptance is growing and this kind of ‘killer app’ is likely to be the path of least resistance.
However, while we talk about ‘general acceptance’, usability and accessibly are often overlooked, said Coventry; and these aren’t the same thing. Industry only wants to hear about the latest innovation and technology coming out of university research, and is often all too eager to overlook how important human behaviour is to the real-world success of biometrics. How, for example, does a blind person, or someone with learning disabilities, use a retinal scanner? What about different cultures, populations, standards?
This isn’t as big a problem as we might think, says Reedman. There is one environment in which biometrics is completely accepted and used successfully many times daily by inhabitants from all walks of life and with various mental or physical difficulties: the prison system.
What about age? How do our bodies change over time? We know our fingerprints stay the same throughout our lives, but what about our irises? We simply don’t know yet, said Professor Mike Fairhurst from the University of Kent, who is also editor-in-chief of the new IET Biometrics journal. Even ten years of research isn’t enough; we would need to regularly survey a group for 90 years to obtain accurate data. Some biometrics systems may only ever need to hold data for 24 hours, in which case this is a moot point, but for companies selling life-long biometric access control systems, more research is required. Waggett agreed that while he’d been working in this field for 20 years, he still didn’t feel ‘ready’ to hand his findings over to other colleagues.
In fact, our panel concluded that research, and the sharing of data, was a fundamental issue in moving this science forward. Jim Slevin from biometrics firm Human Recognition Systems said that legislation around privacy and data protection remains a continuous black cloud over biometric research and development. Fairhurst agrees: it’s very difficult to anonymise data when it includes 10,000 photographs of subjects’ faces.
Difficult though it can be, it’s sharing of knowledge in the end that will give us stimulus. If hundreds of separate pools of researchers from industry and academia are all studying the same thing without being legally able to share or even discuss this with one another, progress will only ever move forward at its current rate. These are precisely the reasons our new journal was set up.
So when, our panel was asked, will biometrics finally reach a tipping point? When can we truly hang our ‘year of biometrics’ flags? Reedman thought it might still be another ten years away. Hopefully IET Biometrics will be part of delivering that sooner rather than later.
The first two issues of IET Biometrics are free. Take a look at the first issue, with the second due in the next few weeks.
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