National sales specialist, Lenovo Canada


Forget James Bond.

Biometrics technology is finally starting to come down to earth to address some far more mundane issues.

For instance, it’s coming to the aid of harried users clamouring for release from the endless passwords they must use to get on with their work and lives.

The technology is starting to go mainstream. A landmark was reached recently when China-based PC maker Lenovo announced it had sold its one millionth ThinkPad laptop equipped with an integrated biometric fingerprint reader.

Worries about the technology are diminishing as people become familiar with the way it actually works. For example, fears that users’ fingerprints may be stolen by hackers are unfounded, says Peter Sturm, national sales specialist at Toronto-based Lenovo Canada.

The ThinkPad doesn’t store the fingerprint’s actual image; rather, it converts it into a mathematical algorithm. And any ghoulish notions that someone’s finger might be chopped off to gain access are also unfounded, he says. The ThinkPad’s reader uses the electrical patterns emitted by human bodies to distinguish a live finger from a dead one or an inert object.

User acceptance is growing as more and more people experience its benefits. The ThinkPad’s reader is both an adjunct to and replacement for passwords, explains Sturm. “So long as you remember to bring your finger with you to work, you can access applications.” The reader associates the fingerprint with passwords or other access information, as defined by the user, and provides it to applications.

The accuracy rate of Lenovo’s reader is about one error in 10,000, says Sturm.

“False rejects are just an annoyance, as users can still use their passwords. False accepts are more of a worry.” Lenovo doesn’t conduct formal studies on the ROI of its laptops, says Sturm, but according to Gartner research, password resets cost $10-30 each in help desk costs. “But based on our customers’ feedback, helpdesk calls are reduced by about 40 to 50 per cent.”

This biometric also offers a visual deterrent to potential thieves, as neither the laptop nor its data can be accessed without the authorized fingerprint. And the advantages for users are incalculable, says Sturm. While Lenovo doesn’t have hard stats, he says, it isn’t hard to imagine the huge benefits in terms of time gained and frustration avoided. “When I sign-on to do my online banking, I just swipe my finger – and every time I do that, I get a smile on my face.”

But he added that Canadian companies were moving cautiously, and still only “dabbling and toying with biometrics.”

Many large enterprises want to recoup investments in existing equipment before investing in biometric laptops, he says. Many also need to test the technology to get first-hand assurances on various aspects: whether they’re comfortable with the rate of false accepts, how the biometric fits in with their existing security policies and procedures, and so on. “But they’ve gotten over the wild James Bondy issues and are buying for the future.”

No particular industry sector is leading the pack in uptake, says Sturm. The healthcare sector, for example, may appear to be a good candidate for the technology, given the privacy safeguards needed for healthcare information. But fingerprint readers may not be the right biometric for that environment, as healthcare workers are often gloved. So long as you remember to bring your finger with you to work, you can access applications. Peter Sturm >Text

Todd Irie, a director at NexInnovations, believes the industry sector is largely irrelevant in terms of uptake. The Mississauga-based consultancy has been involved in several IT projects involving biometrics deployment and integration. He says the business driver for biometric-equipped PCs is the employee’s function, particularly in non-traditional work environments. It is greatest for workers on the frontlines such as client service desks, kiosks, field staff, and so on – people who need quick access to get the job done without security worries.

Paul Race, director of innovation marketing at NCR’s Advanced Concepts Labs in Dundee, Scotland, believes fingerprint biometrics will become the biometric of choice in the future.

As the technology is increasingly incorporated in devices such as laptops and cell phones, this will create economies of scale that will drive unit costs down, making it more affordable to be used in other devices such as ATMs, and for innovative applications. For example, NCR is developing a biometric system for self-checkout retail environments, which are unmanned and require stronger security to verify customers’ identities.

Race notes the uptake of the technology is greater in developing countries compared with North America and Europe. Lack of an existing infrastructure built around magnetic cards is allowing them to leapfrog this stage and go directly to biometric-based security. And in many cases, fingerprinting is part of the national ID scheme, so social acceptance is greater and does not have the criminal associations prevalent in the West.

For example, NCR has been involved in a project with Redbanc, an ATM banking network available in Chile, he says. Customers must provide their thumbprint and social security number to do their banking. “The social security number is used at the ATM to link to the government database to do two-factor authentication,” says Race. Such a system would never be acceptable in Canada.

In another example, NCR is working with Bancaf