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Biometrics becomes billion-dollar industry
At Your Fingertips

A relatively new technology is providing answers to some of today's most intractable problems, including the threat of terrorism, identity theft and fraud in government programs. The technology--and the industry it created--is called biometrics.

Biometric technologies can identify individuals through a variety of biological characteristics, ranging from fingerprints to the structure of faces and hands to the patterns in the eye's iris. Biometrics plays an important part in federal government security procedures and is moving into the office and marketplace as well.

The International Biometric Group, a security consulting and technology services company, estimated the biometrics industry will earn more than a billion dollars in 2004 and will nearly quadruple its revenues over the next four years. And Texas government and businesses are important customers.

Proving you're you
Biometric devices measure and assess unique or distinctive physical characteristics, comparing them against records kept in a database or on a computer chip-equipped "smart card" to verify that an individual is who he or she claims to be. They can verify the identity of governmental aid recipients, limit access to buildings and computer networks and generate employee attendance records, among other uses.

Fingerprints are by far the most common biometric measure in use.

"Some [finger imaging systems] work with minutia--changes in the fingerprint line, where it crosses, terminates or curves sharply," said Neville Pattinson, the Austin-based director of business development, technology and government affairs for Axalto, a major supplier of biometric-capable smart cards. "Others use patterns--they look at an area of the finger and what's going on in it. Others use a combination of both.

"There's a whole range of readers that will check more and more parameters [such as] pulse, heat, subcutaneous fat, density and optical properties. Some are very sophisticated."

According to Cross Match Technologies, a leading biometrics firm, readers that assess hand geometry are the oldest electronic biometric devices in use, dating back to the 1980s. About 8,000 hand geometry-based systems are in use worldwide, in locations including airports, prisons, immigration facilities and hospitals.

Other systems examine vein patterns in the retina and patterns in the iris that, like fingerprints, are unique to each individual and do not change over time. Still others assess facial geometry--characteristics such as the distance between the eyes or the width of a nose or mouth.

Rapid growth
The International Biometric Group estimated worldwide revenues for biometric technologies will total $1.2 billion in 2004, a 67 percent increase over the 2003 total of $719 million. Finger-imaging technologies account for 48 percent of the 2004 estimate.

The New York- and London-based company anticipates sharp growth will continue for the foreseeable future and annual revenues for biometric technologies will hit $4.6 billion in 2008.

Ron Smith, president and CEO of Biometric Access Company (BAC) in Round Rock, Texas, said biometrics is really taking off.

"Over the next 18 months, you're going to see some very dramatic activity, and within 36 months, it's going to be commonplace," said Smith.

IDs for security
The federal government has made biometrics part of its post-Sept. 11 security measures.

As of October 2004, the Department of Homeland Security checks biometric data on all foreign travelers to the United States against database records of criminals and terror suspects. The U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program requires travelers to provide two digital index finger images and a digital photograph upon entry to the country.

The State Department also plans to introduce new U.S. passports that include a chip holding data on the holder's facial geometry. All new passports should have this feature by the end of 2005. And other nations are compelled to adopt the same technology. Under the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, the citizens of 27 nations are allowed to enter the U.S. without visas. These countries must introduce biometric passports by October 26, 2005 if they wish to retain the privilege.

The federal government also is applying biometric technology in its workplace.

"President Bush, on August 27th of this year, signed Homeland Security Presidential Directive Number 12, or PD 12 for short," said Pattinson. "All federal government folks will now have an identity card and a strong credential--basically, a smart card that will include biometric authentication technology."

The government plans to begin issuing them by October 27, 2005.

Let your fingers do the buying
A growing number of biometric applications have more to do with convenience than national security.

BAC, for instance, supplies the Kroger grocery chain with technology used in its payroll check-cashing program. Customers who sign up for the program identify themselves with a finger scan for check-cashing privileges.

"We're in about 130 Kroger stores right now," said Smith. "This year, the plan is to put [the technology] in about another 550 [Krogers], and then about another 950 stores next year."

About 200 Kroger stores in Texas should offer the program by the end of 2004.

BAC also supplies the equipment for a Kroger pilot program in the Bryan-College Station area that offers the ultimate in customer convenience: a 'touch and pay' system that lets participants with a credit card on file make purchases with a touch of their fingers. The service is offered in three stores. The Dallas-based Blockbuster video rental chain is testing similar technology in several of its North Texas stores.

Biometric fraud busting
Texas state government is using biometric technology to combat fraud in its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare benefits program, Lone Star Card food stamp benefits program and Medicaid.

Since October 1996, Texas has used the Lone Star Image System (LSIS) to verify the identity of welfare and food stamp clients via electronic finger imaging, to ensure that no one receives benefits fraudulently. LSIS originated as a pilot project in the San Antonio area and was extended statewide by August 1999. In 2003, the program served 1.4 million aid recipients. The state's Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) estimated LSIS saves Texas taxpayers $6 million to $11 million annually by preventing fraud.

The 2003 Texas Legislature directed the HHSC to extend the use of biometrics to Medicaid.

'[Biometrics is] another tool for the investigators to use to try to eliminate 'phantom services,' which is when a provider bills for services when a client isn't even there, and 'upcoding,' where a provider bills for a service higher than what was actually given," said Sherry McCulley, with HHSC Medicaid Eligibility Services.

A pilot program now under way in Travis, Cameron, Hidalgo, Dallas, Harris and Tarrant counties requires participants to check in and out of medical appointments via a finger scanner, which verifies the client's identity and the length of the appointment--a factor that could help identify fraudulent claims.

"For instance, if a provider bills for an appendectomy, and the client was only there for an hour," McCulley said, investigators would suspect fraud.

Ultimately, HHSC wants to combine this effort with LSIS.

"Our vision is a universal services card--one card [for] Medicaid, food stamps and WIC [a federal supplemental nutrition program for women and children], so that a client only has to carry around one card," said McCulley.

Bruce Wright

Measuring your identity

Biometric devices rely on a variety of physical characteristics to verify identity. These include:

  • finger scans--measure characteristics such as changes in the individual lines of the fingerprint; some scanners perform similar analysses on palm prints;
  • hand geometry scans--measure factors such as the size of the palm and the length and width of the fingers;
  • retina scanning--employs a beam of light to record the pattern of veins in the eye's retina;
  • facial recognition systems--measure factors such as the distance between facial features (such as pupil to pupil) or the dimensions of such features (such as the width of the mouth); and
  • voice recognition systems--analyze the human voice via computerized pattern-matching algorithms.

SOURCE: Cross Match Technologies Inc.