It's not usually easy to predict the future. But it seems to be a
safe bet that biometrics is going to play a larger and larger role in society.
The growth of biometrics is creating many career opportunities, especially
for computer engineers and software developers. But what exactly is biometrics?
"Biometrics itself is the usage of physiological and behavioral characteristics
of the human body for the purposes of identification or verification of humans,"
explains professor Svetlana Yanushkevich. She teaches a university course
called Fundamentals of Biometric Systems Design.
In other words, biometrics uses what is unique about your body and/or your
behavior to confirm your identity.
Biometrics in Health Care
Health care is a big area for biometrics. Biometrics can help ensure that
only authorized people have access to a person's medical records. This protects
the privacy of patients, as well as their health.
"If records were more portable and accessible by health-care teams, it
might reduce the propensity of someone making a medical error," says Jane
Snipes, a U.S.-based recruiter working with biometric companies.
Anil Jain is lab director for the Biometrics Research Group at Michigan
State University. He says an example of how biometrics is helping to protect
people's information is the growing number of laptops with fingerprint scanners.
These laptops let you log in using your fingerprint rather than a user ID
and password. This means you don't have to worry about remembering passwords.
But it also protects you because no one else can access your personal information
by guessing your password.
"What is the most common password that people use?" Jain asks. "It's the
word 'password' itself. Second most popular is '123456.' So even though a
password is supposed to be unique to you or something that is difficult to
crack, it's very easy to guess somebody's password.
"Even if you use your pet's name as a password or a part of the street
address where you live, if I know something about you, I can start guessing
what your password is," Jain adds. "So that's why the use of biometrics is
Retail and Banking
Some grocery stores are starting to use biometrics, installing fingerprint
scanners for their cashiers. When the cashiers change their shift, they log
on using the fingerprint scanner. It keeps track of who logged in at what
time, so that keeps track of both the time they spent as well as who had access
to the cash register at any given time.
Some banks require managers to use fingerprint scanners to log into the
computers. This means they don't have to remember multiple passwords.
"Many pharmacies are using biometrics... so only certain authorized people
can dispense some kinds of narcotic drugs, because there's a lot of misuse
of that," says Jain. "Some banks are considering the use of biometrics for
privacy issues to avoid identity theft, and many stores in Japan are using
palm prints at the point of sale terminals to authorize debit card and credit
card transactions, so the number of users of biometrics is growing."
Disney World offers another example of how biometrics is already being
used. In the past, the way you entered the amusement park was to buy a ticket
and then enter the ticket into a slit in the turnstile.
"In the case of Disney, what was happening was that, since the same ticket
allows you to go to three or four different parks... I will buy the ticket
and go in the morning to the Magic Kingdom and then in the afternoon, I'll
come out and give it to somebody else or sell it outside the gate, so Disney
was losing a lot of money this way," says Jain.
"The second thing was you can also buy a season ticket to have unlimited
visits to Disney for one year, and that was also being shared.
"To avoid that, what they did was they put a fingerprint scanner on each
turnstile, and the first time you put the ticket in the system you have to
place your finger on the fingerprint reader," Jain explains. "Now that ticket
gets linked to that fingerprint, and the next time that ticket's going to
be used it expects the same finger. So this way you cannot share your ticket
with anybody else."
Disney World is an example of biometrics being used for convenience and
to avoid financial loss. But at the moment biometrics is largely used for
security and privacy reasons.
"There are two [main] fields of biometrics," says Snipes. "You've got biometrics
which is attached to the health-care industry and the hospital industry, then
you've got the biometrics which has to do with physical and logical security."
An example of physical and logical security is the use of biometric passports,
also called e-passports. A biometric passport contains a chip that holds information
about the passport owner. The biometric information on this chip is for facial
recognition, fingerprint recognition and iris recognition.
"Europe is going ahead with their biometric passport program, and I think
America will follow in a couple of years," says Yanushkevich.
Yanushkevich says we'll soon start seeing bankcards with biometric chips.
The chip will contain information about your fingerprints, and bank machines
will have fingerprint scanners.
"To see if it's you that's using your card, you'll also have to submit
your fingerprint," says Yanushkevich. "It's not maybe next year, but in five
years for sure."
Yanushkevich says the field of biometrics can be divided into five parts:
- Sensors: "We use cameras such as video cameras, we use fingerprint scanners,
we use tablets for acquiring signatures or we use infrared cameras to acquire
a thermal image of the face," says Yanushkevich. "Or it's behavioral biometrics
such as keystroke pattern -- the way you type on your keyboard can be acquired
and used for identification. Is it you or is it somebody else that's typing
on your computer right now?"
- Image Processing and Pattern Recognition: Processing the data collected
by the sensors.
- Intelligent Decision Making: "This is not just pattern recognition that
you match or not match your fingerprint, for example, but also the decision
making when we don't have enough statistics available to make a decision (such
as match or not match)," says Yanushkevich. "We are analyzing the behavior
of a human and making some... statistics-based conclusions using the previous
Yanushkevich gives the example of seeing how often people
who arrive on a flight from Thailand have the flu. You can use biometrics,
such as an infrared scanner, to identify a fever. "In that case it's not
simply match or not match, but also application of... advanced statistical
methods," she says.
- Performance Evaluation of Biometrics: "If somebody develops a device...
Let's say a fingerprint (scanner), the engineer must provide the data about
the performance, such as false acceptance rate or false rejection rate of
the biometric patterns submitted to the sensor, to the device," says Yanushkevich.
- Privacy Issues: "Users of the biometric devices must consider the privacy
issues, because we use it for security but we are using the private information,"
says Yanushkevich. "We are using the fingerprints that play the role of
passwords... but it's still personal information and sometimes society is
not ready to use certain types of biometrics, and that's why privacy concerns
and public acceptance must be considered by the developers of the biometric
Biometrics has its critics, of course. The power to track and identify
people for security reasons can also be used to invade peoples' privacy. But
biometric technology seems likely to grow in use despite these concerns.
The People Behind the Technology
Who's developing all of this biometric technology? Over the last 20 years
it's primarily been small start-up companies staffed with talented scientists,
engineers and developers, many of whom came from computer science or electrical
"The scientists tend to be at the PhD level, the developers tend to be
at the bachelor's or master's degree level," says Snipes.
"Everybody doesn't have to have a PhD," says Jain. "With a PhD, you're
more dedicated to research, [while] with a master's you can do more R &
D (research and development) kinds of things -- you can do some research
but at the same time you can do some development as well."
"Some of the American universities are offering accredited programs in
biometrics," says Yanushkevich. "Most of them, they grew from forensic sciences,
[and] some of them are attached to biomedical programs."
"There are different levels of expertise needed," says Jain. "It's a complex
system, so there are some people who work on how to design better sensors,
how to design a better fingerprint reader, how to design a better iris scanner,
and things like that.
"So you need a good background in physics and electronics in order to help
design better sensors," Jain adds. "Every security system has a large software
component, so you have to... know something about the security component of
the software, and then there are people who are actually writing the procedures
on how to do the recognition, how to match two face images. For that you perhaps
need a little more specialized training and maybe even a master's level is
What kinds of people are in biggest demand?
"I would say that people who are in demand in this area are those who have
degrees in computer science or electrical engineering, with some training
in things like image processing, signal processing, what's called 'machine
learning,' ...computer vision, pattern recognition, data mining," says Jain.
"In addition to [having] software programming skills, you also need skills
in these topics."
"The types of degrees that we typically see that are in demand are computer
programming [and] bachelor's in electrical engineering," says Snipes.
If you think a career in biometrics might be your thing, there are courses
you can take now to start you in the right direction. "For junior high or
high school, I think the regular stream of science and mathematics is very
important," says Yanushkevich. She also recommends any courses related to
"I would say things like AP (advanced placement) math and AP computer science,"
says Jain. "Broadly, this is a sort of more analytical and software-related
field, so at the high school level I would say these are the two most important
topics. You also cannot forget about AP chemistry, because most engineering
schools require chemistry as one of the subjects."
Getting the right training will prepare you for a field of technology which
is becoming a part of our lives at an increasing rate, and biometrics and
identity management seem to be on the verge of becoming truly mainstream.
"I believe biometrics will take off in the U.S. very soon and become mainstream
because: 1) the technology can be used to enhance data protection, in part,
reducing identity theft and 2) it's an enabling technology which can increase
the convenience at the point-of-sale," says Snipes.
"I don't believe there are issues with adoption at all... we just need
that single killer app to surface and the floodgates will open."
International Biometrics & Identification Association
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Biometrics Research Group
Learn about the biometrics projects underway at Michigan State