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The demand for greater security at borders, government buildings, and companies has meant boom times for biometrics-technologies that measure biological traits to identify individuals. Systems that digitally fingerprint people, read the patterns of their irises, measure the unique dimensions of their faces, or verify their voices are expected to become a $1 billion business in 2004, quadruple what it was just five years ago.

But there’s a problem: no single measurement works for everyone. As many as 3 percent of people lack readable fingerprints, and perhaps 7 percent have eye pigmentation that interferes with iris scans. Face recognition software can be thwarted by veils or thrown off by changes in hairstyle or lighting. And biometrics can be tricked: a fingerprint left on a sensor can potentially be lifted and used by someone else; many face recognition systems can be fooled by photographs or video clips. “No biometric has proven to be the ultimate,” says Gary Strong, the manager of behavioral and biometrics programs in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology office.

Now, corporate and academic labs worldwide are tackling these weaknesses by merging multiple biometrics into systems that are flexible, accurate, and virtually spoof-proof. These new, so-called multimodal biometrics generally take a probability score from each biometric measurement and combine them to provide a single thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Given the pressing demand for better security, revenue from multimodal biometrics is expected to soar from $11 million in 2003 to $220 million by 2008, says Trevor Prout, marketing director of the International Biometric Group, a biometrics consultancy in New York, NY.

Software made by HumanScan of Erlangen, Germany, uses face recognition, voiceprints, and lip motion to identify people-the first commercial multimodal biometric identification product. It starts by preparing a data template for each person who might later need to be screened. A standard video camera equipped with a microphone records one second of video and voice, and the software uses that data to create a unique template. Later, the template can be used to verify identity based on all three signatures. Managing director Robert Frischholz says HumanScan’s combination yields far higher accuracies than individual biometrics. “If you add them all together, you get better results-much better results,” he says.

HumanScan’s technology is already being used to protect certain restricted military computer networks and to safeguard casino customers’ money from being claimed by imposters. But this year the company, in collaboration with IBCOL, a technology commercialization company based in Munich, Germany, is moving to pilot installations that will verify the identities of travelers entering and exiting the United States and Germany. The company will not discuss which biometrics are being used. But there’s already a growing lode of biometric data on travelers. For example, the United States requires that all visitors (except those from Mexico and Canada) submit to digital fingerprinting and photography.

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Tagged: Computing, Biomedicine

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