A Fingerprint for the Future

NEW DELHI – Never underestimate the importance of a one-millimeter piece of flesh. It matters if you are going to jail, receiving rations, or late to work. It matters while going to the temple, trading in the market or flying to the US. The minute ridges of skin that make up your fingerprint are set to be among your most precious possessions. Biometric solutions are entering public life.

Biometrics is the science of identifying a person using some unique physical characteristic. There are five basic ways to identify humans through biometric technology: fingerprint, voiceprint, retina/iris scan, hand geometry and facial recognition. Of these, the fingerprint is the most popular. It’s easy to use and reliable, with an average accuracy of 98%.

Of course, there are many things that could reduce the accuracy of a print. Like a hand covered in dust. Or oil. Or sandalwood. That’s what Bartronics was up against when it developed the largest biometric system in the world for the temples of Tirupati and Tirumala. With roughly 4,000 pilgrims arriving daily, and over one lakh during festivals, they had to develop a system of crowd control that could take on the numbers – and the puja powder.

Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam (the organisation that runs the temples) first worked with Bartronics four years ago to help pilgrims avoid waiting all day for their chance to enter. “When I visit the temple, I’m not sure when I will see the Lord,” says Bhanu Prakash, vice-president (operations and projects) of Bartronics. They initially developed a system of bar codes on taffeta wristbands. But these were hard to stock, the waste was not biodegradable, and they suspected people were selling bands with better timings. A biometric system with touchless fingerprint scanning became the answer to their prayers.

Though the high-tech security and access restriction that biometric solutions provide may seem a strange brew when mixed with religion, it is a sign that the technology is moving beyond top-secret places like military installations. The biometrics market in India has moved up from about $1 million three years ago to $2.5 million-3 million in 2003. Indeed, biometrics is now cropping up in all sorts of unlikely areas.

Chandrababu Naidu’s government in Andhra Pradesh uses biometrics and smart cards for security. Various state, police and city offices in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka use fingerprint clock-in systems for workers, which ensures both accurate paycheques and punctual employees. The UN Refugee Association recently hauled an iris scanner to Pakistan to prevent locals posing as Afghan refugees from receiving aid disbursements. Kerala issued fingerprint-enabled ration cards. And the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) recently created a central market database called Mapin. Sebi requires biometric information (among other things) from any market intermediary in order to monitor market transactions and provide transparency. The database will eventually cover everyone involved, including retail investors.

But perhaps the most far-reaching use of biometrics in India will start in the next few weeks. The Indian Census, with the support of the Central government, will roll out its National ID Card pilot programme in 13 districts of 13 states. The mundane information, like name, date of birth, etc., has already been collected from the pilot’s three million participants. Now each village in the 13 districts will be visited by a fingerprint scanner and a camera for picture identification. The fingerprint data will be encoded in smart cards, which will serve as permanent national IDs.

“We are making this facility available to people at their doorsteps, literally,” says J.K. Banthia, Census commissioner and registrar general. Census employees will knock on doors and get people to registration facilities, which will fingerprint about 150 persons a day. They hope to put an ID that will be linked to all government databases – pensions, healthcare, rations, land records et al -in the hands of every Indian.

Having such a card would not only make governance easier, it would also lift the domestic biometric industry. Though Banthia does not discuss costs, he believes the project will be “a big boost to the IT sector as a whole”. Bartronics’ Prakash says the industry is expecting a windfall from the national ID plan. “Everybody (in the biometrics business) is trying to get contracts and tie up with companies abroad,” he says.

Domestic companies need to have good contacts abroad, as no one in India is capable of producing the core technology – the scanning apparatus – yet. This is because it requires huge investments and specialist expertise. Dheeraj Kumar of BioEnable, an Indian firm that develops and manufactures non-core hardware and software for biometric systems, says: “There are some things which we need, and we weave the system around them.” Mumbai-based biometrics firm Jaypeetex has tied up with US-based Bioscript to get the core technology. And while the US, Europe and Japan are still the sources for most core technology, companies in Taiwan and Korea are also starting to manufacture the technology.

Biometrics at your desktop?

In 2000, Frost & Sullivan found the size of the Indian biometrics market was just 6% of the total electronic access control (EAC) market then. But it was also projected as the fastest growing EAC market segment: Frost & Sullivan expected it to touch $2.5 million-3 million by end 2003. That figure, say industry folk, has been reached. About 20 companies are involved in biometrics in India now. Though the market is still very open, companies like Jaypeetex, Datamatics, Zicom and Johnson Controls are leaders.

In the rest of the world, the market is rising, but isn’t reaching any lofty heights. There is no identifiable leader; the main players are NEC, Infineon, Fujitsu MicroElectornics, Atmel and Iridian, to name a few. According to Acuity Market Intelligence, a US company that publishes regular biometrics reports, the post 9/11 projections for the industry were overblown. Having set global revenues targets between $500 million and $1 billion by 2003 for the core biometrics technology (which accounts for around one-fourth of the entire biometrics market), the actual 2003 numbers were just $240 million-400 million. One reason for the lag is that pro-privacy groups have lobbied hard against the use of biometrics in public spheres. Another was the technology’s high cost.

But now, costs are coming down world-wide. When Girish Podar started Jaypeetex back in 1994, he sold fingerprint scanning devices for over Rs 2 lakh. Now, he sells working devices with fingerprint scanners for Rs 25,000. This price includes an intelligent processor, memory – the works. Also, the 100%-plus tax on imported technology is down to around 30%. Face and iris scanners are still expensive, with prices above Rs 1 lakh.

Iris recognition is expensive and inconvenient, but it’s the most accurate, measuring more than 250 distinct features. Fingerprint scanning captures 40-60. Finger scanning has several methods such as optical, ultrasound and silicon sensors, which work in different ways. Atmel’s silicon sensor chip, for example, measures temperature differences between ridges of the fingertip.

Though higher growth is expected in the physical security sector, like at airports and offices, the logical security sector is expected to follow. Personal biometric product prices are down, and more fingerprint scanners are being added to keyboards, mice and mobile phones for those who seek extra security. Some experts say that some predict the technology will be included in every PC shipped out after 2005. A stand-alone personal biometric solution made and sold in the US costs $120. A personal iris scanner costs $250.

Brave new world

Police have used fingerprints to track the bad guys for a century, but what happens to data collected from lawful citizens? In the US, new immigration laws require foreigners who enter the country to get a fingerprint scan. It’s part of the work of the Department of Homeland Security, which recently awarded a $10-million contract for the technology. The department wants to collect as much information about people as possible, and use computer algorithms and human analysis to detect potential criminal or terrorist activity. Biometric technology has been proposed (some claim it is already being used) to identify and track individuals from a distance through technologies like face recognition or gait recognition. Some members of the international community, as well as many US citizens, feel these programmes invade privacy.

In India, biometric technology has not created a stir yet. Officials acknowledge the technology’s uses in security and the privacy issues they could throw up, but are hesitant to talk about them in detail. Instead, they talk of the benefits.

Census commissioner Banthia says: “Obviously, security will be one of the issues, but not the theme.” V.R. Narasimhan, the senior vice-president of the National Securities Depository (which is implementing Mapin for Sebi), says: “The system can be used for different purposes, depending upon the user’s imagination.” However, he wants to wait and see the Mapin system in place and working before he starts looking at any other uses.

Both men stress that the technology would actually improve personal security by tracking and preventing fraud, both in the markets and in the government sphere. “It should make life easy for the people…. The interaction should be made transparent,” Banthia says. Narasimhan hopes that Mapin can curb illegal activities. The database would contain comprehensive information of market participants, which would be available online for anyone interested in checking out their intermediaries before they enter into transactions.

Jaypeetex’s Podar sees the potential for privacy problems on the horizon, though he thinks there are none at present. “For all applications, other than the really large ones, we do not store fingerprint images. We create simple ASCII files from the images and then discard the images.”

Then, there is the fear that the technology, especially fingerprinting, is not unbeatable. European papers reported that two German hackers have said they developed a technique using latex fingertip patches to defeat scanners without being detected by security cameras. Also, Japanese students say they can dupe some scanners using gelatin finger moulds, known as ‘gummy fingers’.

Yet the world is full of true believers like Podar, who sees biometrics changing the future. “If you are looking for a positive identification or verification of persons, this is the best technology,” he says. “God has given it to us for free, we just need to work on it.”

By Erica Lee Nelson

Published in Businessworld, 2004.