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Identify Your Future in Biometrics

It's not usually easy to predict the future. But it seems to be a safe bet that biometrics is going to play a larger and larger role in society.

The growth of biometrics is creating many career opportunities, especially for computer engineers and software developers. But what exactly is biometrics?

"Biometrics itself is the usage of physiological and behavioral characteristics of the human body for the purposes of identification or verification of humans," explains professor Svetlana Yanushkevich. She teaches a university course called Fundamentals of Biometric Systems Design.

In other words, biometrics uses what is unique about your body and/or your behavior to confirm your identity.

Biometrics in Health Care

Health care is a big area for biometrics. Biometrics can help ensure that only authorized people have access to a person's medical records. This protects the privacy of patients, as well as their health.

"If records were more portable and accessible by health-care teams, it might reduce the propensity of someone making a medical error," says Jane Snipes, a U.S.-based recruiter working with biometric companies.

Anil Jain is lab director for the Biometrics Research Group at Michigan State University. He says an example of how biometrics is helping to protect people's information is the growing number of laptops with fingerprint scanners. These laptops let you log in using your fingerprint rather than a user ID and password. This means you don't have to worry about remembering passwords. But it also protects you because no one else can access your personal information by guessing your password.

"What is the most common password that people use?" Jain asks. "It's the word 'password' itself. Second most popular is '123456.' So even though a password is supposed to be unique to you or something that is difficult to crack, it's very easy to guess somebody's password.

"Even if you use your pet's name as a password or a part of the street address where you live, if I know something about you, I can start guessing what your password is," Jain adds. "So that's why the use of biometrics is important."

Retail and Banking

Some grocery stores are starting to use biometrics, installing fingerprint scanners for their cashiers. When the cashiers change their shift, they log on using the fingerprint scanner. It keeps track of who logged in at what time, so that keeps track of both the time they spent as well as who had access to the cash register at any given time.

Some banks require managers to use fingerprint scanners to log into the computers. This means they don't have to remember multiple passwords.

"Many pharmacies are using biometrics... so only certain authorized people can dispense some kinds of narcotic drugs, because there's a lot of misuse of that," says Jain. "Some banks are considering the use of biometrics for privacy issues to avoid identity theft, and many stores in Japan are using palm prints at the point of sale terminals to authorize debit card and credit card transactions, so the number of users of biometrics is growing."

Disney World offers another example of how biometrics is already being used. In the past, the way you entered the amusement park was to buy a ticket and then enter the ticket into a slit in the turnstile.

"In the case of Disney, what was happening was that, since the same ticket allows you to go to three or four different parks... I will buy the ticket and go in the morning to the Magic Kingdom and then in the afternoon, I'll come out and give it to somebody else or sell it outside the gate, so Disney was losing a lot of money this way," says Jain.

"The second thing was you can also buy a season ticket to have unlimited visits to Disney for one year, and that was also being shared.

"To avoid that, what they did was they put a fingerprint scanner on each turnstile, and the first time you put the ticket in the system you have to place your finger on the fingerprint reader," Jain explains. "Now that ticket gets linked to that fingerprint, and the next time that ticket's going to be used it expects the same finger. So this way you cannot share your ticket with anybody else."

Biometric Passports

Disney World is an example of biometrics being used for convenience and to avoid financial loss. But at the moment biometrics is largely used for security and privacy reasons.

"There are two [main] fields of biometrics," says Snipes. "You've got biometrics which is attached to the health-care industry and the hospital industry, then you've got the biometrics which has to do with physical and logical security."

An example of physical and logical security is the use of biometric passports, also called e-passports. A biometric passport contains a chip that holds information about the passport owner. The biometric information on this chip is for facial recognition, fingerprint recognition and iris recognition.

"Europe is going ahead with their biometric passport program, and I think America will follow in a couple of years," says Yanushkevich.

Yanushkevich says we'll soon start seeing bankcards with biometric chips. The chip will contain information about your fingerprints, and bank machines will have fingerprint scanners.

"To see if it's you that's using your card, you'll also have to submit your fingerprint," says Yanushkevich. "It's not maybe next year, but in five years for sure."

Diverse Field

Yanushkevich says the field of biometrics can be divided into five parts:

  1. Sensors: "We use cameras such as video cameras, we use fingerprint scanners, we use tablets for acquiring signatures or we use infrared cameras to acquire a thermal image of the face," says Yanushkevich. "Or it's behavioral biometrics such as keystroke pattern -- the way you type on your keyboard can be acquired and used for identification. Is it you or is it somebody else that's typing on your computer right now?"
  2. Image Processing and Pattern Recognition: Processing the data collected by the sensors.
  3. Intelligent Decision Making: "This is not just pattern recognition that you match or not match your fingerprint, for example, but also the decision making when we don't have enough statistics available to make a decision (such as match or not match)," says Yanushkevich. "We are analyzing the behavior of a human and making some... statistics-based conclusions using the previous experience."

    Yanushkevich gives the example of seeing how often people who arrive on a flight from Thailand have the flu. You can use biometrics, such as an infrared scanner, to identify a fever. "In that case it's not simply match or not match, but also application of... advanced statistical methods," she says.

  4. Performance Evaluation of Biometrics: "If somebody develops a device... Let's say a fingerprint (scanner), the engineer must provide the data about the performance, such as false acceptance rate or false rejection rate of the biometric patterns submitted to the sensor, to the device," says Yanushkevich.
  5. Privacy Issues: "Users of the biometric devices must consider the privacy issues, because we use it for security but we are using the private information," says Yanushkevich. "We are using the fingerprints that play the role of passwords... but it's still personal information and sometimes society is not ready to use certain types of biometrics, and that's why privacy concerns and public acceptance must be considered by the developers of the biometric devices."

Biometrics has its critics, of course. The power to track and identify people for security reasons can also be used to invade peoples' privacy. But biometric technology seems likely to grow in use despite these concerns.

The People Behind the Technology

Who's developing all of this biometric technology? Over the last 20 years it's primarily been small start-up companies staffed with talented scientists, engineers and developers, many of whom came from computer science or electrical engineering programs.

"The scientists tend to be at the PhD level, the developers tend to be at the bachelor's or master's degree level," says Snipes.

"Everybody doesn't have to have a PhD," says Jain. "With a PhD, you're more dedicated to research, [while] with a master's you can do more R & D (research and development) kinds of things -- you can do some research but at the same time you can do some development as well."

"Some of the American universities are offering accredited programs in biometrics," says Yanushkevich. "Most of them, they grew from forensic sciences, [and] some of them are attached to biomedical programs."

"There are different levels of expertise needed," says Jain. "It's a complex system, so there are some people who work on how to design better sensors, how to design a better fingerprint reader, how to design a better iris scanner, and things like that.

"So you need a good background in physics and electronics in order to help design better sensors," Jain adds. "Every security system has a large software component, so you have to... know something about the security component of the software, and then there are people who are actually writing the procedures on how to do the recognition, how to match two face images. For that you perhaps need a little more specialized training and maybe even a master's level is fine."

Training Required

What kinds of people are in biggest demand?

"I would say that people who are in demand in this area are those who have degrees in computer science or electrical engineering, with some training in things like image processing, signal processing, what's called 'machine learning,' vision, pattern recognition, data mining," says Jain. "In addition to [having] software programming skills, you also need skills in these topics."

"The types of degrees that we typically see that are in demand are computer programming [and] bachelor's in electrical engineering," says Snipes.

If you think a career in biometrics might be your thing, there are courses you can take now to start you in the right direction. "For junior high or high school, I think the regular stream of science and mathematics is very important," says Yanushkevich. She also recommends any courses related to information technology.

"I would say things like AP (advanced placement) math and AP computer science," says Jain. "Broadly, this is a sort of more analytical and software-related field, so at the high school level I would say these are the two most important topics. You also cannot forget about AP chemistry, because most engineering schools require chemistry as one of the subjects."

Getting the right training will prepare you for a field of technology which is becoming a part of our lives at an increasing rate, and biometrics and identity management seem to be on the verge of becoming truly mainstream.

"I believe biometrics will take off in the U.S. very soon and become mainstream because: 1) the technology can be used to enhance data protection, in part, reducing identity theft and 2) it's an enabling technology which can increase the convenience at the point-of-sale," says Snipes.

"I don't believe there are issues with adoption at all... we just need that single killer app to surface and the floodgates will open."


International Biometrics & Identification Association
Read the latest industry news, and learn how biometric technology is applied in other fields

How Biometrics Works
An in-depth review by the folks at

Biometrics Research Group
Learn about the biometrics projects underway at Michigan State University

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