Biometrics is the Key

Biometric security systems for the home are still in their infancy, but powerful technological and social forces are stimulating rising demand in this sector, writes
JOHN POWER.

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Biometric security devices, i.e. devices that involve the input of an individual’s personal physical characteristics – fingerprint, finger vein, iris, retina, palm, voice, facial features and more – represent a relatively small piece of the household security market.

But the increased uptake of these kinds of systems is inevitable, and like all technological revolutions, the market pressures at play are varied and complex.In countries like the US, the biometrics security market is tipped1 to reach $11 billion by 2015, and the rising use in institutional and business applications is improving everyday users’ familiarity with (and trust in) the technology.

The traditional way

Most households rely on keyed entry for principal and subsidiary household applications, and most people are habituated to the idea of carrying clusters of keys in their pockets.

However, apart from the obvious fact that keys can be lost or damaged, consider the following points:

• More than 2.6 million Australian dwellings – almost a third of all households – are rented. These properties, which are subject to average tenancy periods of approximately three years (and falling), make keyed entry methods increasingly problematic upon changes of tenancy.

• Two-thirds of all mobile phones in Australia are ‘Smartphones’, which means the majority of the population is becoming comfortable with concepts of digital security, multi-functionality, and remote access. The latest Apple iPhones, for instance, feature fingerprint recognition security for the first time.

• Workplaces are leading the charge towards biometric entry methods as a means of replacing or complementing traditional locks. The effectiveness of these systems is ‘filtering down’ to employees and other building users, enhancing perceptions of the reliability, prestige and effectiveness of biometric devices.

Undoubtedly, the growth in biometric security systems has been fuelled by the commercial building sector, where devices have represented good value for money compared to the prospect of ‘changing locks’ in response to a range of circumstances. Biometric access systems allow building owners to add new participants to databases quickly, or remove entries just as efficiently if an employee leaves a company. In applications like hospitals, courts and schools, biometric systems have the added functionality to permit specific entry to different zones of a building or complex at different times of the day. For instance, a cleaner might be allowed access to a room on a nominated cleaning day, but denied access at other times. Or a teacher might be permitted to access certain areas on weekdays but not on weekends. When integrated into wider security systems, multiple layers of security may enhance effectiveness, as might happen with automatically triggered CCTV whenever a biometric device is activated.

The greatest complementary function, arguably, is movement tracking. Biometric systems can serve as data loggers, indicating the time and frequency of access of a given person to a particular space.

Remote access and monitoring options are also appealing. For instance, in the event of a safety concern like fire, a controller may wish to engage or disengage all biometric locks to allow rapid egress from a building. Conversely, a ‘lock down’ might be appropriate in the event of a security breach. Remote access may also empower off-site security companies to control or override systems instantly if required.

Around the home

While all these functions might make sense in corporate or commercial sectors, how do they relate to domestic settings, the mainstay of most retail hardware outlets?

There are several powerful reasons why homeowners might like to embrace greater levels of biometric technology. The primary reason may be as simple as ‘increased trust’ in the systems.

A recent US survey2, for example, sponsored by PayPal and the National Cyber Security Alliance, revealed that 53% of Americans are ‘comfortable’ replacing passwords with fingerprints, 45% would opt for a retinal scan, and 41% are comfortable with photo identification. Certainly, all applications for (non-waiver) visas to enter the US already entail biometric identification processes – by law. In other words, biometric systems are institutionalised and are far less intimidating than they might have been just a few years ago. Coupled with innovations involving everyday devices like Smartphones, the shift from ‘alternative’ to ‘mainstream’ is inexorable.

Convenience and peace of mind are equally strong drivers towards acceptance. Children are notorious for losing keys; there is appeal in the notion of removing this problem. More importantly, a biometric system with remote access can allow parents away from home to check that individual children have arrived home safely. Greater levels of integration within the ‘connected home’ are making such applications commonplace, particularly on the strength of higher-capacity broadband systems and more affordable access.

Convenience extends to the replacement of a large number of keys with a simple keyless solution. Of course, it is already feasible for a homeowner to match all principle home locks to a single key… but that option only increases the number of physical locks that have to be changed if a key is mislaid. Challenges

Of course, not all users view biometric solutions with equal enthusiasm. Issues relating to hygiene involving touch screens, system freeze due to power outage, forgery, privacy, and accuracy remain bugbears of the industry – largely hangovers of past technological deficiencies.

In recent years manufacturers have addressed all of the above matters carefully. For example, contactless sensors are providing alternatives to touchable sensors. And there seems to be little evidence that communal sensors are any more harmful than keypads on ATMs or knobs on doors. Self-contained, back-up power sources allow systems to operate even during blackouts; forgery can be practically eliminated through the use of multiple biometric measurements at once (such as voice AND iris AND fingerprint recognition); privacy is enhanced through increasingly secure, stand-alone computer protocols; and accuracy has been augmented to the point where false positive or negative readings as low as 1:50,000 are feasible. NB: in Australia, a recent study3 of six million user-generated passwords demonstrated that the 10,000 most common passwords would have accessed 98.1% of all the accounts.

Cost, of course, is another consideration affecting the widespread uptake of biometric technology, but prices are falling significantly in tune with higher production volumes.

Small biometric steps

For the moment, keyed locksets continue to serve as the world’s preeminent security devices. But the new home market, in particular, is active in the uptake of a range of electronic security devices, including biometric systems.

Hybrid units, including both keyed and biometric features, are appealing to homeowners who want the best of traditional and new technologies.

Ultimately, the pervasiveness of digital technologies in general may be sufficient to promote the wider adoption of biometric security systems: sometimes, trends drive other trends!

Footnotes

1. ‘Put a Finger on It: Biometrics’, Electrical Contractor, by Darlene Bremer, March 2013.
2. ‘Study Finds Consumers Okay with Biometrics’, Security, 9 October 2013.
3. ‘Vicorp Speech Biometric Solutions’. See www.biometricsinstitute.org