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Senior Editor, Network World

Biometrics Scares Most People

Oct 03, 20113 mins
Access ControlBiometricsData and Information Security

Biometrics the security method for identifying an individual by making a match of fingerprints, iris, face, voice, DNA and other unique physical traits scares people, an industry leader in the field acknowledged this week. But enterprise technology managers say there’s no doubt biometrics is a boon to enterprise security.

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“There are perception issues we all face,” said John Mears, director of biometrics and identity management solutions at Lockheed Martin Information Systems and Global Services Civil. In his keynote address at the Biometric Consortium Conference last week, Mears acknowledged that the public perception of biometrics tends to be rather negative because it’s personal and physical.

“There’s the perception that biometrics can injure you,” he pointed out, telling industry attendees there’s a need to educate the public that gathering of biometric samples, such as scans of the iris of the eyes, is not harmful. He said he can understand how people are nervous when the subject of DNA comes up. DNA is in very human cell, and saliva samples collected in a cotton swab in the cheek, for example, are enough to allow an analysis of each person’s unique DNA profile as a unique identifier (though identical twins share the same DNA).

“They think when you’ve taken their DNA, you’ve taken their soul,” he said. The biometrics industry has to do a better job of explaining the technology and its purpose to the public, he said. He also noted that there are now a lot of state efforts to kill biometrics projects, such as Texas repealing use of biometrics in its food-stamp program, while California, Alaska, and other states are also battling biometrics.

In New Hampshire, there has been a bill to restrict collection of biometric data, Mears pointed out, adding the next hit that biometrics could face is if it’s perceived that social-networking sites are using facial recognition wrongly.

But the positive perception of biometrics can be heard from enterprise IT managers that find it delivers strong security and helps in meeting auditing requirements.

“We use biometrics in all our clinical areas through a fingerprint on a pad,” says Jim Lowder, vice president of technology at OhioHealth, the regional group of hospitals in Ohio. Hospital workers accessing a computer to view clinical applications all use fingerprint-based verification.

The healthcare system’s Imprivata OneSign authentication appliance for single-sign-on (SSO) and access management accepts this type of fingerprint biometric. Simple passwords still exist for internal purposes and as an alternative, but no one has to use them because the Imprivata SSO device is set up to accept the fingerprint identification as the primary strong authentication.

Not only does this spare staff from having to remember user ID and passwords for each application but the fingerprint biometrics security also helps in meeting requirements from the Ohio Board of Pharmacy that allow for approval of medical prescriptions without physicians having to sign a paper-based prescription.

In general, fingerprint-based identification for access to computer applications has worked very well, though in a very small number of people, their fingerprints are too faint to allow the device to work well, says Lowder. Other forms of two-factor authentication that OhioHealth uses include PhoneFactor, which once you enter a corporate PIN and password, an automated call is made to your phone and you verify your identity. If there’s any downside to fingerprint biometrics, says Lowder, it’s that end-users tend to forget their passwords entirely.

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