As devices that recognize a person's biological 'signature' proliferate, they are raising some troubling issues.


June 01, 1998|By Eric Slater | Eric Slater,LOS ANGELES TIMES

In the papillary loops and whorls on the human fingertip, one of nature's lovelier and more mystical truths kept itself hidden for eons. Only a century ago did scientists discover that no two fingerprints are alike.

In recent decades, science has learned that the rest of the human body is equally unique - the scattered specks of color in the eye, the timbre and tenor of a voice, the gradations of heat rising from a face.

For years, though, devices designed to recognize such minute anatomical signatures - from facial thermographs to body-odor sensors - were found mostly in Defense Department laboratories, spy novels and movies.

Now, with accurate and affordable biometric devices beginning to appear in such unexotic places as suburban banks, welfare offices and grocery stores, their practical applications are finally being tested.

So, too, are issues of security and privacy, with the frontier of civil liberties likely to move beyond random drug testing to include the fingerprinting of employees and the electronic mapping of automated-teller-machine customers' eyeballs. Such practices, critics suggest, could violate laws governing everything from search and seizure to equal protection.

Biometric companies quietly rang up about $140 million in sales last year - $25 million of which went for uses outside law enforcement - and analysts predict that the industry will grow to nearly $1 billion in annual sales by 2001.

It took a couple of decades, observers say, but the predictions of yesteryear's futurists are finally coming to pass.

Since 1996, inmates at the Lancaster County jail in Pennsylvania have been released only if an iris scan matches the one stored in a database.

Many athletes at this year's Winter Olympics in Japan checked in by splaying their hands across a hand-geometry scanner. Automaker BMW is trying to design a car that will start only after it recognizes the driver's fingerprint.

And, in what is believed to be the first such use in the country, Century Bank's branch in the Encino district of Los Angeles has done away with the old-fashioned, and occasionally misplaced, keys that employees needed to enter the inner vault, as well as imprecise handwritten entry logs.

Operations Manager Wilma Jean Tinto punches in her secret code, then presses a finger against a small optical prism. Within two seconds, her fingerprint is scanned and digitized, and its distinguishing features compared with other prints stored in an electronic data bank.

Ka-chunk. The door unlocks.

"You may know my user-ID number," said Tinto, wagging the middle finger on her left hand, "but you can't duplicate this."

Said Ed Howard, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Law in the Public Interest: "If we can use biometric identification sensibly and securely, you will want to use your fingerprint and not your Social Security number, because you'll know it's much more secure." But, he added, "if we don't take steps now, your fingerprint and your voice are going to be as easy to steal as your Social Security number is now."

Some skeptics worry about accidental releases of personal data and a black market of biometric information. Even now, it is possible for someone to secretly scan your iris or face.

Some iris-scan technologies - which don't sear your eye with a James Bond-style laser beam but merely snap a digital photograph - can function from several feet away. Face-recognition technology, critics contend, could be used by government or police agencies to identify faces in a crowd.

Any face that had been stored in a database could be identified much more quickly and with far more accuracy than the FBI enjoyed while snapping photographs of Vietnam War protesters.

"My concern is the all-seeing, all-knowing biometric database," said Beth Givens of the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. "My dark side can foresee the old 'Give me your papers' scenario."

The essential principles of biometrics have been largely understood for decades. Much of the early research took place in Defense Department labs, where researchers tinkered with new ways to keep government secrets a secret.

Only recently have technological improvements made the systems accurate enough to assuage the fears of those who safeguard cash in Los Angeles, the nation's bank robbery capital, for example, and cheap enough to create a commercial market.

The basic system at Century Bank is manufactured by Biometric Identification Inc. in Los Angeles, an offshoot of a longtime defense contractor.

When one finger is scanned, the device has an error rate of 1-in-1,000. When two fingers are scanned the error rate falls to 1-in-1-million.

This spring, the company plans to release a system with components the size of a quarter. That scanner can be attached to a key chain or installed in a computer keyboard or mouse, and will sell for about $320, said Tom Reilly, the company's director of software engineering.

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