Scanning the future of enterprise security

The days of simple login and passwords may soon be viewed as Mickey Mouse methods of a distant time. The age of new security measures is nearly upon us – measures that once held a place only in the life of James Bond. The sinking reality is that finger print scans and voice recognition may become the only sure way to verify employees’ identities. As the world struggles to secure its systems, buildings and information, technologies once believed to be drastic measures are not so drastic anymore. Biometrics security is at the moment a baby market, but analysts and vendors alike have strong suspicions that this market is getting ready for take off. But the question remains: is the enterprise ready, or better yet comfortable with the idea of taking personal identification to the extreme?

Verification Pending

Biometrics security is in no way a new technology. Government agencies and law enforcement organizations have relied on biometrics for years as a means of allowing clearance into buildings. However, the future of biometrics in the average enterprise holds many issues, mostly concerning the high costs of deploying systems, and the human reservations with offering body parts up for verification. According to Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC, the worldwide biometrics technology market reached US$118.8 million in 2000 and is predicted to increase over the next five years at a compound annual growth rate of 50 per cent.

Dan McLean, research analyst with Toronto-based IDC Canada in Toronto, said biometrics should be viewed as a means of physical security, not necessarily as a way to secure information. McLean said that companies related to physical security will find that biometrics makes security easy.

“Instead of remembering all these different passwords and authentication codes, what biometrics does is essentially make it very easy to identify and recognize individuals,” he said. “Biometrics is best suited to physically secure an environment.”

The fingerprint scan is currently the most popular and widely used biometrics method. Still, there are newer, more advanced technologies on the horizon.

According to Jim Hurley, vice-president and managing director of security and privacy at the Aberdeen Group in Boston, voice recognition and retinal scans are newer, surer ways of keeping the unwanted out, however the technology is far from being perfected.

“The voice stuff, we have found from the tests that have been going on that it is not ready for prime time by and large,” Hurley said. “Most of it is based on what we would call voice recognition that you’d find in a technology from the now defunct Via Voice or similar technologies that you would use to dictate something into your computer. The ones that seem to be the most stable and present the least problem in being able to register an identity uniquely seems to be the fingerprint.”

Another biometrics method making its way into mainstream usage is what is referred to as facial recognition. Hurley said that the technology has been around for about 15 years, but added that there have been several startups delving into the space during the last three years.

“A lot of companies have been evaluating many different biometrics-related technologies during the past three years,” he said. “The companies that are using it primarily (now) are government agencies.”

Bond…James Bond

Although biometrics offer an iron-fisted way to prevent unwanted and unauthorized individuals from entering prohibited areas, there is more to the technology than fancy gadgetry and futuristic toys. IDC Canada’s McLean said that there are several issues surrounding the technology that suggest it may not be ready for widespread deployment in the enterprise.

“I think the issue is that it is still kind of flaky,” McLean said. “I think also there is the issue that it is still unproven technology, and that it is very expensive.”

Aberdeen’s Hurley added that although fingerprint scanning holds first place in the biometrics popularity contest, he said that deploying fingerprint readers throughout an enterprise becomes a costly venture. He said that when it comes to voice recognition, the issues become more complex.

“(The current) voice technology is not able to keep up with dialectic differences,” Hurley said. “The users have rejected it saying that it is just too immature and not ready. Hopefully within the next year or two we will see some lightweight solutions that work and are not onerous.”

Locked in…

Still, as the kinks are in the process of being worked out of biometrics security methods, one company has implemented the technology and said it wouldn’t have its foundations secured by any other measure.

Q9 Networks, a Web hosting facility in Toronto, uses fingerprint scans to allow access not only into its actual data centre, but into the cages where equipment is housed as well. According to Q9 CEO Osama Arafat, since customers are generally in the enterprise and financial services space, the company wanted to ensure that its security systems would be able to satisfy their requirements.

“One of the main requirements is to positively identify every person that enters and exits the facility,” Arafat said. “(With biometrics) no one can go and lend their access card to somebody else or let someone in.”

Not only has Q9 installed biometric readers for access to the facility, but the security system includes everything from security cameras to a bullet-proof anti-hostage man trap, which only allows one person to enter the facility at a time.

Arafat said that Q9 opted for the fingerprint scan for several reasons. He said that the fingerprint scan allows a person to scan more than one fingerprint, which Arafat said is important in case of an injury to the hand.

“Some of the other technologies like with the retinal scan, we felt that user adoption would not be very good,” he said. “People don’t like lights or lasers shined in their eyes. With the hand scan you can only enrol one hand – the right one – and there is no opportunity to have more than one way to identify you. That technology does not work for people who do not have all five fingers.”

In terms of cost, Arafat said that it is hard to separate what the actual biometric costs are. He said that the entire security system was fairly expensive, but added that the system encompasses all the security methods.

“The biometrics readers themselves are a few hundred dollars a unit, but that is just the basics,” Arafat said. “It is a costly investment to put in a sophisticated and robust security system whether you choose to biometrically enable it or not.”

The company said it is satisfied with its current security system, but Arafat added that Q9 is always evaluating new offerings to create an even more secure environment.

Meet George Jetson…

One of the new offerings recently brought to market is facial recognition technology for the office place. VisionSphere, based in Ottawa, said that facial recognition adds another layer to verify that the person in possession of a certain password or authentication means is in fact the person who should be in possession of those means. The company has developed a facial recognition product for desktop users when logging onto their computers.

“This is a method of access control,” said Warren McKay, vice-president of business development for VisionSphere. “What this allows you to do is have a camera that is connected usually through a USB port. When you sign on, it will verify that you are the right person who is supposed to own that sign-in and password.”

McKay said the process is relatively simple. He said that new users will be asked to register and will be guided by voice commands. The pseudo-Web cam will take the person’s picture at different angles and photos are stored within a database. The next time that person logs in, the camera will take his or her picture and compare it to the other pictures in the database. McKay noted that workstation devices would cost approximately $200 per station.

“The thing about what we are doing is that we believe that most computers in the future will have cameras on them anyway for things like videoconferencing,” he said.

McKay confessed that the current market for facial recognition technology in Canada is still in its early stages, a statement that both Hurley and McLean agree with, but McKay added that he is confident that adoption will progress.

“We have found that the market here is a bit more conservative, but that is something that is not unique to this technology only,” McKay said. “We have to wait for the market to catch up a but, but we have had numerous inquiries from people already.”