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Contributing Writer

Biometrics: What, Where and Why

Mar 18, 20104 mins
BiometricsIdentity Management Solutions

Biometrics are slowly gaining acceptance. Here's a look the most common forms and uses of biometrics and the forces shaping the market.

Biometrics encompasses a variety of methods for ensuring identity based on physical or behavioral traits. Conventional identifying traits include fingerprints, face topology, iris structure, hand geometry, vein structure, voice, signature and keystroke recognition. Emerging technologies analyze characteristics such as gait, odor, and ear shape. Rather than being used in isolation, biometrics systems are increasingly becoming multimodal, an approach that serves both to increase security and overcome failure-to-enroll problems.

In order for the systems to work, users first have to be enrolled and their information must be recorded in a database. From there, they use either a verification or identification approach. With verification, the system confirms that a person is who he claims to be, via a one-to-one matching model. Identification, on the other hand, is more complex. It uses a one-to-N approach, matching the person’s biometric data to a list of users in the database.

Read the related article Using Biometric Access Systems: Dos and Don’ts

Biometrics offers several advantages over identification cards and passwords or PINs, namely the requirement that the person being identified is physically present and the elimination of the need to remember codes or tokens. Dan Miller, senior analyst and founder of Opus Research in San Francisco, distills the benefits of biometrics: Other systems rely on something you know or have, whereas biometrics works off something you are.

Key Applications of Biometrics

There are several applications for which biometrics is useful, according to Maxine Most, principal at Acuity Market Intelligence in Louisville, Colo., and she projects that they’ll grow at varied rates between 2009 and 2017:

  • Physical Access: Facility and secure-area access, time-and-attendance monitoring. Growth: Flat, starting at 13 percent of total market revenues and ending at 14 percent.
  • Logical Access: PC, networks, mobile devices, kiosks, accounts. Growth: From 21 percent to 31 percent of total market revenues.
  • Identity Services: Background checks, enrollment, credentialing, document issuance. Growth: Decline from 65 percent to 47 percent of total market revenues.
  • Surveillance and Monitoring: Time and attendance, watchlists. Growth: From less than 1 percent to nearly 8 percent of total market revenue.

Biometric Market Drivers

In the public sector, worldwide government mandates for integrated border management systems are driving adoption of biometrics for electronic identification programs, Most says. In the commercial market, she says, the main drivers will be the evolution of mobile phones equipped with near-field communications, which enable information sharing, service initiation and payment and ticketing capabilities.

“This will be a problem crying out for biometrics,” she says, “not only to lock the devices, but also to authenticate high-risk or high-value transactions.” Tens of millions of mobile devices are already shipping with embedded biometrics, she points out. Similarly, another driver may be the healthcare industry, which may look to biometrically protect electronic health records, she says.

According to a recent survey by Unisys Corp., rampant growth of identity theft and new regulations mandating increased protect of personal identification information are driving acceptance of biometrics.

Market Overview

Biometrics have experienced setbacks over the years, in the form of inadequately planned deployments, inherent limitations of the technology and fears about violations of privacy and civil liberties, Most says. But she sees overall momentum in this market, predicting global revenues for biometrics core technology will reach nearly $11 billion annually by 2017, a compound annual growth rate of 19.69 percent.

This will be due in part to significant transformations over the next 10 years, she says, which will include improved ease of use, accuracy and performance; lower prices and increased reliability of capture devices; and the embedding of capture devices in everything from PDAs, PCs, point-of-sale terminals and ATMs to vehicles, security gates and home appliances.


Most says that the biometrics industry has historically been dominated by a highly fragmented core of vendors producing the various technologies biometrics requires: sensors; pattern recognition and matching algorithms; integrated devices (sensors plus algorithms); and platform software.

Consolidation is on the rise, however, as exemplified by the buying spree of L-1 Identity Solutions, which snapped up finger scanning software vendor Identix and face recognition software vendor Viisage Systems (which had previously bought iris recognition application vendor Iridian).

Until recently, the competitive focus has been limited to accuracy and performance, Most says. However, maturing business models will evolve from product- to service-based offerings, she says.

Also see Biometrics: Three Tips for Success