Separate biometric fact from fiction, expert says

OTTAWA — When John Siedlarz was in the U.S. Air Force 30 years ago, things like fingerprint scanners and iris readers were so shoddy that the machines needed repair after 45 minutes of use.

Though the technology has improved since then, Siedlarz, the chairman of the International Biometrics Industry Association (IBIA), thinks such equipment is at risk of becoming just as useless again in the wake of 9/11. This time, though, it would be for entirely different reasons.

“”After 9/11, there’s been an immediate need to exploit the technology,”” he told members of Ottawa’s National Press Club Wednesday.

Biometrics refers to any technology used to identify people based on their personal characteristics — like their fingerprints, faces, voices or retinas — in electronic door locks and network applications at border checkpoints and in airports. It’s touted as an alternative or a supplement to password systems, which can be broken into by anyone with a little computer know-how and a lot of patience.

Before Sept. 11, he noted that the biometrics industry had moved from protecting physical infrastructure into protecting information — like data used in e-commerce transactions. He noted that the market “”pull”” on the physical infrastructure front was murky, and suggested there weren’t many buyers for the technology.

But once terrorists had struck at the heart of America, he said media pundits started hard-selling biometrics as a one-stop security solution that would take care of the country’s problems.

“”You’ll hear all of these stories (in the media) about facial recognition software, and how, if it’s applied immediately, it can stop this and stop that,”” he said. “”Of course, the federal government in the United States . . . was ready to reach out to these news stories, and make early, pre-emptive decisions (solely) on the basis of what they were reading in the media.””

His recommendation to the biometrics industry? “”Put some breaks on this (technology) and put some thought into how you’re going to make it work”” as a comprehensive solution that works with other kinds of security.

Siedlarz spent time touting a new loose coalition of academic and trade organizations trying to make it easier for governments and private industries to work together finding meaningful biometric security solutions. The National Biometric Security Project — which takes its overtures from WWII’s Manhattan Project — involves the IBIA, the Biometric Foundation and West Virginia University, among others.

The group is looking at privacy issues, like what would happen if businesses and governments took carte blanche control of personal biological records. It also hopes to recommend technology standards so that Canada Customs doesn’t use fingerprint readers while the Americans use another technology.

Liberal MP Derek Lee, chairman of the federal government’s national security subcommittee, applauded the group for trying to make biometrics relevant with a commitment to bringing all levels of government and other business interests to the same table.

“”It’s good to see where our friends (in America) are going . . . by short-circuiting the usual commercial development of biometrics,”” said Lee after Siedlarz’s talk. “”But my guess is that commercial applications will eventually come to dominate, so the storage and commercialization of biometric data is a spin-off security issue”” of interest for the Canadian government.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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