Future of biometrics in sight
Hong Kong firm sees market for iris recognition devices as clients use them for time attendance
Hollywood's obsession with biometrics as the signature characteristic of the future has left an indelible mark on a technology that is now increasingly ubiquitous.
Tom Cruise may have wowed audiences by foiling biometric security measures in films such as Minority Report and Mission Impossible, but it is difficult to see how the technology will maintain its sex appeal once every traveller on a shopping trip to Shenzhen has to have their fingerprint scanned by immigration control.
For the business manager of Hong Kong-based Golden Apple Biometrics, Kevin Wong, the glamour associated with the technology wore off years ago.
The firm entered the biometrics space at the height of the dotcom boom in 1999, deploying biometric hand-readers in, of all places, construction sites.
The hi-tech equipment was installed in 20-ft containers with the sides removed, complete with turnstile and side office, for companies concerned about illegal immigrants entering the site.
'The reason why we didn't do dotcom in 1999 is that we're in the technology business, not the technology speculation business,' Mr Wong said at the firm's office last week. The cramped quarters belie the hi-tech gadgetry barring access to the front door.
From such unglamorous beginnings, it is not surprising that Mr Wong has retained a matter-of-fact view of the technology, impressed with function over style.
'Biometrics as an industry is still relatively new. Does that make it sexy? I would say no, but it is certainly a technology that actually works.'
Mr Wong said many of his firm's clients relied on biometrics for more mundane tasks such as time attendance and salary payment.
'It's like a front-end feeder of information into back-end administration and payment systems.'
Another mainland-based client has compiled a biometric database of blacklisted employees to prevent workers sacked from one facility gaining employment at another.
Golden Apple also completed a contract for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, deploying biometric security at the club's Quarantine Stable B, used to house foreign horses in town for international races.
'The Jockey Club is able to tell foreign trainers they have nothing to fear from bringing their horses to Hong Kong,' Mr Wong said.
'This is important not only to prevent outside people gaining access to the horses but also to minimise any threat of disease.'
Market data supports the view of biometrics as a mainstream technology. The International Biometric Group predicts global revenue from biometrics will reach US$4.6 billion in 2008 from US$1.2 billion last year.
Mr Wong said that thanks to decreasing hardware costs and an increase in processing power afforded by Linux, more sophisticated and secure biometric technology such as iris scanning would become the deployment of choice for organisations.
'Globally, there are few successful deployments of the facial scan, and fingerprint deployments usually graduate to iris over time,' Mr Wong said.
According to the International Biometric Group, iris recognition revenues will grow from US$36 million in 2003 to US$366 million in 2008 based on the technology's 'low false match rates and hands-free operation' making it suitable for applications 'that require high levels of security'.
Mr Wong said: 'Iris has always been the most accurate, stable biometric platform, not subject to false rejections related to finger cuts. The iris is also not damaged by a regular bar fight or a thrown punch - it has to be more serious than that, like someone sticking a pen in your eye.'
The technology works by reading marks and scarring left on the iris as it stretches and contracts according to light during a baby's development.
Golden Apple's solution can also detect whether a scan comes from a live eye by measuring pupil dilations and the natural pulse of the iris, relegating the gruesome scene in Demolition Man - in which Wesley Snipes escapes from prison by attaching the warden's eye to the top of a pen - thankfully to mere science fiction.
In fact the advantage of iris scanning over fingerprinting extends further than security, on the grounds that many people - particularly Asians - are unsuitable for the technology based on the size of the fingerprint and the proximity of their minutiae - points read by computer software to judge a fingerprint match.
Mr Wong argued that this fact alone should have given the Hong Kong government pause when it chose fingerprint technology for smart ID cards and the e-channel at the Lo Wu border crossing.
'Biometrics is certainly a touchy subject. It is discriminatory - there are always going to be people missing a thumb, or with burns on their faces, who cannot then use various scanners or deployments. So it's up to the government or company to find a solution that caters to everybody.'