Biometrics: Generating real-world results today

Monday, December 1, 2003

In June, the Bush administration issued a warning about the fastest-growing crime in the United States according to the FBI, a crime that has already claimed 12 million victims and is expected to affect another million people this year. It might surprise the average person, however, to learn that the crime in question is identity theft. Its victims, meanwhile, range from everyday citizens to large financial institutions and commerce organizations such as credit card giants Visa and MasterCard. According to the United States General Accounting Office, the two companies lost a combined $114.3 million from identity theft in 2000, up 43 percent from just a few years before.

Moving targets

Why has this problem continued to grow so rapidly over such a short period in recent years? The answer lies in our own progress. As society has moved into the electronic age, our economy and the transfer of personal and often times vital identity information has become increasingly automated. The harsh reality of this is that every individual has become a more likely target for identity theft. Consider this: How many people actually think twice before doing things such as making payments online or sending personal information electronically without truly knowing if it is secure? All it takes for an identity thief to open credit cards or bank accounts in another person’s name without his or her knowledge is that person’s name, date of birth and social security number. By the time the financial institutions seek payment, the damage has already been done. It is estimated that once a violation of identity theft is uncovered, the time involved for the victim to rectify her personal credit, financial and identification documents is a minimum of 18 months. Identity theft is insidious and vandalizes all levels of our socioeconomic structure.

In response to this rapidly growing crisis, several states, including Texas, Virginia and California, passed laws in July to protect individuals from identity theft. At the same time, financial institutions, retail organizations, and government and law enforcement agencies are exploring new technologies and preventative methods to secure the identity of individual citizens.

Combating identity theft

Biometrics has already begun to take hold and prove to be a highly effective solution across local, state and federal government agencies as well as in the international government sector. For example, the Department of Motor Vehicles in the state of Illinois is one of a growing number of state agencies leveraging secure digital identification card systems that capture face images and other information in digital format. In fact, Illinois currently has the largest database of any state with nearly 14 million images. Systems, like the one in Illinois, are being used to verify that documents being presented are authentic and that the person holding the identification is in fact that person. In one particular case in Illinois, facial recognition technology was used to capture an individual that had been issued 12 driver’s licenses – all with the same image but different names – and used them to steal more than $280,000.

Opportunities increase

The use of biometrics is gaining traction and generating momentum on other fronts as well. The use of biometrics in airports and for all aspects of border control measures is growing as the Department of Homeland Security pushes forward with the US-VISIT program, its automated entry/exit system that will expedite legitimate travelers while making it more difficult for those intending to do harm to enter the country. In April, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that the US-VISIT system would be capable of capturing and reading a biometric identifier at air and sea ports of entry before the end of 2003.

Recently, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) offered further validation for the use of biometric technology by endorsing its use in airport security. In its report, ICAO singled out facial recognition technology as the most reliable biometric to be used in aviation security-related document verification. Finally, government agencies are in the early stages of incorporating biometric information into travel documents such as passports to strengthen access at border crossings.

The potential is there

Although still evolving, biometric technologies are delivering quantifiable results when used in controlled environments for such exercises as access control and to help fight identity theft. As biometric technologies continue to evolve, the long-term potential exists for adoption in critical activities such as border control, aviation security, and criminal and civil identification.

The next 12 months will be critical as the US-VISIT program kicks into high gear, and commercial and government institutions around the globe continue to successfully deploy and leverage biometrics as part of a comprehensive arsenal to combat the ever-growing problem of identity theft.

Jim Ebzery is senior vice president of sales and marketing for Viisage Technology. He can be contacted by email at