Canada still cool to biometrics applications

Heightened security concerns and science fiction movies aside, biometric technologies aren’t yet facing widespread adoption in the Canadian public sector.

For one observer, however, there is a growing interest as costs drop and vendors widen their range of products.

“”It’s still an emerging

technology, and there’s also the price factor,”” says Eric Hebert, a principal consultant with Fujitsu Consulting in Montreal.

“”There is an interest in replacing the old user-name/password.””

Facing increasingly complex identification systems involving multiple passwords that need to be changed frequently, IT managers are looking to make their work — and users’ experiences — easier to handle.

Implementing a biometric system not only widens the reach of user access without additional complexity, but also boosts protection for “”critical”” applications, according to Hebert.

Particular organizations, including the Passport Office and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) are rolling out biometric technologies to improve security.

Last year, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade launched a $2.1 million pilot project using facial recognition software to check passport applicant photos against a database of people under police or security surveillance.

This year, CATSA put out a call for a firm to develop additional airport security services, including a biometric component. Interest is also growing in other sectors, Hebert says.

“”Health care is also looking into protecting patient records.”” In Quebec, for instance, there is some interest in combining smart cards with fingerprint recognition capabilities.

Besides cost, reliability is also a concern for many IT buyers, according to Hebert. In many ways, it’s still a “”buyer-beware”” market, he says.

Confusing markets

As part of his work as a consultant, Hebert tries to see how systems can be bypassed or interfered with. Lower-end fingerprint recognition systems, for instance, can be fooled by using some powder and a piece of tape.

“”In some of theses services, you are able to recover the latent fingerprint image.””

Just thinking about the technology on its own isn’t the best way to approach the subject, either, says Howard Stanley, executive director of the Canadian Advanced Technology Association’s Biometrics Group. He recommends a more holistic approach.

“”We see it as a safety factor in the deployment of an application.””

Stanley’s group represents new and established biometrics companies. It has received queries from public and private-sector IT managers regarding vendors’ claims. Stanley says his work involves helping buyers make informed decisions in what is sometimes a confusing market.

“”Since Sept.11, everyone claims to be a security expert,”” he says.

While biometric devices often carry a certain stigma or are seen as invasive, Stanley says that once implemented, they are generally well received. “”People are very accepting of it, especially when they’ve had some experience with it.””

In some cases, users suggest additional uses for the applications, he says.

However, vendors have had different experiences working with government buyers in Canada. Iain Drummond, president of Vancouver-based Imagis Technologies Inc., says a good working relationship with a nearby branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police helped spur new business opportunities in the United States.

“”They’re very receptive to trying things out.””

Through previous work with the North Vancouver RCMP, Imagis was approached to develop a face-recognition system that would compare images of arrested suspects with those already entered in a database. The system would help identify people who refused to give their names to police. The application was developed about two years ago, Drummond says, and within three weeks had a “”major success.”” After refusing to identify himself to arresting officers, a man was found to have been using four different names. He was discovered after four identical images, each with a different alias, popped up after a search.

Based on its local achievements, Imagis now sells to other police departments.

“”We’ve had a lot of success in California,”” Drummond says. He estimates that there are more than 50 installations of his company’s software in the state.

For Mark Kovalsky, however, U.S. government organizations are far more receptive than their Canadian counterparts. The president of Ottawa Telephony Group Inc. says his firm’s voice-recognition work has earned respect and contracts within a range of agencies south of the border.

Part of his firm’s success lies in its niche capabilities, Kovalsky says.

“”We’re not speech experts … We are experts in writing business applications, or the wrapper, around the voice script,”” he says. “”It’s not just taking an SDK (software developer’s kit) and writing something and rolling it out.””

In the U.S., public sector IT managers are far more receptive to new technologies, such as biometrics, he says. “”They seem to embrace us with open arms.””

In Canada, it’s often difficult to even meet the right decision makers. “”It’s tremendous the amount of time it takes.””

Demand is growing

Despite the differences between the two countries, the overall demand for biometrics products is set for rapid growth. In 2001, the global market was estimated to be worth about US$93.4 million, and should grow to about $2 billion by 2006, says Prianka Chopra, an industry analyst with Frost and Sullivan. That translates to a compound annual growth rate of 86 per cent for that five-year period.

“”There’s immense exposure,”” she says. “”Something that was science fiction earlier is now a reality.””

While Hebert doesn’t see too many new applications developing in the near future — there is already a range of devices based on face, iris, retina, fingerprint, palm and voice recognition — he does see a trend towards industry standards. This should improve not only reliability, but also interoperability, making the lives of IT managers that much easier.

“”Often the software needs to be looked at in as much detail as the device,”” he says. “”For IT departments, there is a learning curve in how to support these technologies and especially how to integrate them within their already existing applications setting.””

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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