EXPERT ADVICE

Biometrics in the Here and Now

The day has come. Fingerprint biometrics is real technology for real people.

Spurred by the size and cost advantages of fingerprint sensors and a growing need for security, biometric fingerprint technology is being integrated into more and more devices, including laptop PCs from the leading manufacturers around the world, cell phones — particularly in Japan — and home door locks being sold at major home improvement retail centers.

The day is coming soon when the everyday consumer will use biometrics on at least one device and may end up using biometrics all day long, from home to transit to work to shopping and more.

Why are fingerprint sensors becoming so popular? Here we’ll explore the “whys” behind the biometric boom, and what’s to come on the road to ubiquity.

Convenience: The Beauty of Password Replacement

“Passwords are not only weak; passwords have a huge problem … if you get more and more of them, the worse it is,” Bill Gates said at the 2007 RSA Conference. Passwords are a headache for everyone, whether at home or the office, on your PC or your cell phone.

Recent SAP Info research states that 82 percent of all SAP passwords are written down, and 40 percent of all employees share passwords on a frequent basis — not very secure. Passwords are also expensive. For example, it typically costs a company US$10 to $13 to reset an employee password, according to Forrester Research. Moreover, many people do not use passwords at all, given their inconvenience, and thus leave their electronic devices and the information on them unprotected.

Fingerprint sensors eliminate the need for the user to write down passwords, greatly reduce calls to help desks and ensure that only a pre-enrolled and authorized user gains access to a PC or cell phone, the data stored on the device, and the network to which it connects.

Fingerprint sensors add further convenience features to PCs and cell phones and are now being used in models to personalize the device, enabling functions like fast user switching, speed dialing (each finger is a different phone number) and fast application switching. In addition, in small form factor devices, the sensor can be used for device navigation, similar to a joystick. Password replacement is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to convenience of fingerprint biometrics.

Security Factors

We reference security second to convenience, which could imply that fingerprint sensors are primarily a convenience device, as compared to a “real” security product. However, the point we want to make is that there are many ways that you can make something secure, but the traditional methods have historically been highly inconvenient. They are so inconvenient, in fact, that people opt not to use the security feature at all — and thus we are back to square one. Fingerprint sensors provide security that even geeks love yet are convenient enough for everyone to actually use.

They also address a growing need. Just consider these statistics about device and data theft:

  • According to Symantec, a laptop is stolen every 53 seconds in the U.S. — and 97 percent of them are never recovered.
  • Ponemon Institute found that 81 percent of nearly 500 companies surveyed lost one or more laptop computers containing sensitive information in the previous 12 months at an average cost of $4.8 million per data breach.
  • Nearly one in four PDA owners has had their PDA lost or stolen, according to Palm’s Info Center.

Biometrics can secure electronics devices and cut down on many of the statistics above. It can also become part of the solution to eliminating identity theft, via a typical wallet. Consider that, according to PrivacyRights.org, a lost or stolen wallet, checkbook or credit card was the primary method (38 percent) by which personal data used in identity theft was obtained.

In Asia and elsewhere, credit cards and wallets are being replaced by a wave of a fingerprint-enabled cell phone in front of a payment terminal at a 7-Eleven, a McDonald’s and many other retail locations. This wave of mobile commerce (m-commerce) will come to the U.S., Europe and the rest of the world in the next couple of years and will contribute significantly to growth in fingerprint biometric ubiquity.

E-Commerce and Mobile Commerce Feed the Ubiquity Fire

OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), retailers, telecommunications carriers and financial institutions are taking this biometric ubiquity very seriously because they know that what is good for the consumer is good for business.

Nearly $2 billion was lost in e-commerce sales in 2006 due to security concerns of U.S. adults, according to Gartner estimates. If every online purchase used some form of biometric authentication to manage the person’s digital identification, only the account holder would be able to make a purchase final. With that kind of extra security measure in place, more customers could be converted to the e-commerce experience.

It may be cell phones that ultimately convert people fully to biometric usage. This is for several reasons:

  • Phones are replacing credit and debit cards. In Japan, you can wave your cell phone in front of a wireless POS (point of sale) terminal, authenticate with your fingerprint sensor and complete your transaction. It is a faster and more convenient process for all parties, and with the fingerprint sensor integrated directly into the cell phone, the owner knows that their money (and their pictures, contact lists, etc.) are all secure.
  • These technologies are coming to the U.S. and Europe, probably faster than folks think. The same wireless terminals that are all over Japan are now being rapidly deployed throughout the U.S. in many retails shops. In addition, phones are now being introduced with the communication technologies needed to interface with the terminals.
  • More cell phones and PDAs are being introduced with higher end operating systems and more functionality. The fact is that the more the user can do with their phone and its data, the more the consumer wants to protect that increasing valuable asset with a fingerprint sensor.

Consumers Want Biometrics

It’s clear that most consumers think biometrics are cool and are interested in having them integrated into more consumer electronic products. Here are the results from recent consumer surveys on the topic:

  • Sixty-six percent of consumers favor biometrics as the ideal method to combat fraud and identity theft, according to the 2006 Global Consumer Biometrics Study by the Ponemon Institute.
  • Seventy-eight percent of consumers believe using a fingerprint sensor is more secure than using passwords, and 72 percent would opt for a biometric feature when purchasing a PC, according to a 2005 U.S. PC Users Security Survey by Zoomerang.

By linking security and convenience, consumer demand is being met with PC and cell phone OEM adoption of fingerprint biometrics, and the results will be exciting for biometric companies. However, perhaps most exciting is the added value the biometric sensors bring to our consumer electronics devices, giving us confidence to easily use them in secure and convenient new ways.


Scott Moody is the cofounder, chairman and CEO of AuthenTec, a provider of fingerprint authentication sensors and solutions.


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