Are Biometrics the Key to Data Security?

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Picture this: You stroll into your local coffee chain and a device scans your facial features to instantly signal the barista to begin making the double espresso you pre-selected online. You quickly settle up with the cashier by placing a thumbprint on a device at the counter.

Arriving a few minutes later at the office, you gently press your hand onto a metal platform that signals the stout security guard to smile and buzz you in; finally settling down at your desk, another fingerprint reader allows you to access your firm's most sensitive data.

Sound like a Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel? Not quite. These futuristic scenarios are fast becoming a reality as the biometrics market gains momentum and impacts the way we think about data security. Mercator Advisory Group, an independent research and advisory firm for the payment industry, predicts that global revenues for the biometrics industry will approach $7 billion by 2010: a figure that'll sure buy a lot of double espressos.

Never Lose Your Keys Again
Biometrics, generally speaking, deals with measurable biological characteristics used for identifying or authenticating the identity of an individual. In computer and data security, where biometrics is fast replacing passwords and smart cards, biometric devices measure a particular physical characteristic automatically in order to recognize or verify a person's identity, allowing them physical or logical access—whether to an office building, laptop, or database, or all three. 

All of us have, at least once, had the experience of losing our keys or forgetting a password. In addition, keys and passwords can be easily stolen or compromised. We end up having to spend countless hours waiting to get a replacement key or go through a time-wasting and frustrating process to reset our password. Basically, it's a pain in the neck. For companies with thousands of employees, resetting forgotten or compromised passwords and replacing key cards is not only irritating, it is a downright costly and risky proposition. In terms of data security, biometrics offers a solution that makes passwords obsolete and keys a thing of the past. Lose your keys? Never again . . . because you are your keys.

As mentioned, biometrics relies on physical characteristics to identify and authenticate a user. In data security, authentication is the most common objective—that is, it is primarily concerned with verifying a user. The most common physical attributes measured by biometrics are fingerprint, face, retina, iris, voice, hand geometry, and vein. Recent work utilizes electronic impulses emitted by human physiology like brain waves, heart, muscles, and nerves to identify users. There is even work in developing a biometric that analyzes physical characteristics such as ear shape, keystroke (typing rhythm), and yes . . . even (ugh!) body odor! 

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