Biometrics access control: not perfect, but possibly inevitable

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

YARMOUTH, Maine—Biometrics is the present and the future of access control. Some integrators and manufacturers of facial, iris and fingerprint recognition systems talk as if the markets are growing so fast that cards and keys may seem as old-school as paper checks. Others, however, caution that end users still need time to digest what is happening and what’s ahead.

John Aksoy, president and CEO of Plugout, a technology integration-solutions firm based in New York City, said, “It’s definitely highly specialized [right now.] It’s also the future. Soon there will be no need for keys, no cards. Your face is your key … No one can replace your face.”

The growing markets include “5,000 tenants entering one building in a bad neighborhood … or the data center of a big corporation,” Aksoy said. “You identify someone who is unknown and doesn’t belong there, and [then] you make an intercom connection” so that a potential security breach is addressed before it happens.

“I love it,” Aksoy said. “Years ago it was cumbersome. And it does require specialized training.” However, he added, “Facial recognition is nothing new. It’s been around for a long time. It just hasn’t been as practical as it is now,” in part because cameras now can conquer lighting obstacles, and prices dropped.

Other integrators agree on the essence of Aksoy’s analysis, although they don’t sound as bullish about the speed of widespread application of all biometric technologies.

Don Francisco, VP of Advanced Electronics Solutions, also based in New York City, said that although fingerprint recognition is widely accepted in Manhattan office buildings, “we don’t see a lot of facial recognition. We don’t see a lot of people using it, although we hear a lot of people talking about it.”

AES does much of its work in affluent apartment complexes, big-money office buildings, and public-service municipal agencies. At least one city department has a biometrics access control device that reads vascular patterns on hands.

Edward Eaton, senior account manager for AES, added, “There’s an application [for biometrics] everywhere, if the technology works for your objective.”

Training for integrators and education for end users are progressing rapidly, resulting in more mainstream applications, said Matt Gilbertson, president and co-owner of The Gilbertson Group, based in Coatesville, Pa. which integrates facial recognition systems.

“In my view, it is a little more mainstream,” Gilbertson said. “Apple did everyone a good service a few years ago when they introduced biometric functions in their iPhone, making it more adaptive” for different applications.

“We are into the second or third generation of various technologies for facial recognition,” said Gilbertson, noting that, not too long ago, the process involved a “geometric pattern of the face” created by an “unsightly” facial recognition scanner. “Now … we use software that allows for self-serve types of applications in terminals and access control [stations].”

Gilbertson is as optimistic as anyone about a wider application of biometric, although he warns that the history of transition in this field has not always been spotless.

“Without casting aspersions on anyone, the first generation [of facial recognition biometric manufacturers] did everyone a disservice,” he said. “There were a few out there who tried to do too much.” Now, however, these same manufacturers produce products that “play nicely with traditional security systems.”

Integrators are accustomed to adapting on the fly. They look good and perform better when they are familiar with the pieces and products supplied by the manufacturers.

Manufacturers interviewed by SSN take pride in developing their own biometric software, so that end users know exactly what they are paying for. But these providers also see the value of selectively contracting out for some components of their products.

"We embed some analytics that we OEM (original equipment manufacture) from other vendors into our product," said Uma Welingkar, senior product development manager at 3VR, a video intelligence company in San Francisco. "It gives variety and flexibility for our end users to choose the analytics based on their needs."

Arie Melamed, CMO of FST Biometrics, a biometrics solutions provider based in Rishon Lezion, Israel, said, “We do most of the development of software ourselves. We do buy some software. We have six patents. … We also have pre-installed software.”

Melamed and Welingkar said FST and 3VR do whatever they can to make the installation and application of biometric technology considerably easier than rocket science, as they keep the end user and integrators in mind. 

New skills are not required for integrators, according to Melamed. “We have put a lot of effort into simplifying the process. … You can almost install it in two or three hours. You don’t have to be sophisticated” about the technology.

Integrators with basic training can handle biometrics—mostly for the purpose of talking about the benefits to end users, said Welingkar.

Melamed and Welingkar alluded to biometrics becoming more mainstream, less specialized and more commonplace in the near future.

Big retailers with high security risk products such as smart phones can use facial recognition not only to keep the store safe, but for marketing purposes. “They can see who is entering the store, what they are buying, what age group they are,” said Welingkar of 3VR. “It’s [an example of] moving away from access control to demographics, marketing, to put the right products in the right place.”

Welingkar said this kind of marketing produces useful data at warp speed compared to online surveys, which may take three months to process, or paper surveys, which could take six to eight months to process.

Biometrics have been simplified for more widespread use by smaller companies, according to Melamed of FST. Although it’s not at the point where a consumer of modest means can install biometrics in his home PC, he said, “We are quite confident the price will come down. Right now it costs at least $10,000 to run a system.” In a few years, a company paying that price now will be paying a fraction of that cost.

Startups and entrepreneurs will be looking at attractive prices within a few years, and consumers’ home use of biometrics could be one or two years away, Melamed said.

Gary Jones, director of Morpho Biometrics’ access and time solutions business unit, based in Anaheim, Calif., said his firm has worked for 40 years with the FBI and Interpol, border patrol, government pension offices and passports screeners—all major users of fingerprint identification. That experience helps with commercial application.

“If you can do 700 million fingerprints for the FBI, then an airport with 70,000 to 130,000 employees seems manageable,” Jones said. “The commercial market is where the growth is.”

“We spend a lot of time on training,” he noted. “The product, taken out of the box, has all the standard connections [integrators] are used to working with for the past 30 years. … We build the exact same reading and touch interfaces.”

There is little doubt that biometric technology is marching toward commercial use to the point where Americans may not think twice about it as they shop or seek entertainment. But such changes come with detours.

In Jones’ experience, “Facial recognition is not as secure [as other biometrics], although it is quite convenient.’’ And although biometrics development and deployment has exploded over the past 10 years, he said, “it’s being tarnished by vendors with pretty bad technology or weak technology.”

Mark Clifton, president of SRI International’s products and solutions division, based in Menlo Park, Calif., also sees limitations for certain biometrics even though “it’s become more mainstream.“ Fingerprints, he noted, don’t always work in many environments. SRI, a nonprofit research center, sees potential for biometrics in a growing range of applications and vertical markets, including transportation, time and attendance, and healthcare. The company is developing new iris solutions for several pilot programs in one of the world’s busiest airports.