Biometric technology is now at work behind bars. Loved ones hoping to visit friends or family on the inside at many prisons are enrolled in a biometric system. A scan of their fingerprint gains them entry to the visiting hall, provided they are the right person in the right place at the right time.
The system does away with much of the paperwork concerning prison visiting orders. Various check points on the way into and out of the prison help to secure the process. So if a prisoner tries to escape with the visitor, it is instantly picked up and alarm bells are rung.
Day to day, the inmates themselves use biometrics at self-service kiosks to shop, check balances, order meals, make appointments and ask questions. These systems help to combat bullying between inmates, as a fingerprint and pin number are needed to authorise any transactions. Prisoners have the pin number printed on a badge in case they forget it.
Clive Reedman, project manager at Unilink, a supplier of IT solutions to the public sector, says: “An awful lot of prisoners now come out of prison and would be quite happy to use these systems at an ATM. They probably find it quite inconvenient to try and remember a pin number – perhaps they would be the best salespeople for the industry.”
Fingerprint recognition systems are also beginning to crop up in schools. They enable students to buy lunches and take out library books. Outside prison walls and beyond the school gates, the only other place where people are likely to encounter biometrics is at an airport. But here the take-up of the technology has faltered.
A recent report by the Commons home affairs select committee found that the £9 million spent on a biometric iris recognition system launched by the UK Border Agency in 2006 would have been better spent on providing more staff. The iris recognition systems at Birmingham and Manchester airports have already been switched off and they will only remain in use at Heathrow and Gatwick until the end of the Olympics this summer.
The report raised many issues about the use of biometrics. Questions were asked about what will happen to the data collected and about the way the scheme was used as a test-bed for its successor, the e-gate, which uses facial recognition technology.
The public’s unfamiliarity with biometrics is one of the reasons why the technology has failed to make much of an impact. According to
Dr Lynne Coventry, director of the Psychology and Communication Technology Laboratory at the University of Northumbria, the general public’s perception of biometrics comes from sci-fi films. “They have no idea how to use these technologies at the moment and no mental model of how they work,” she explains.
Then there are the privacy issues. People worry about the covert nature of biometrics and data security. In reality, many biometric applications do not identify users – instead, they flag people who have an entitlement to use a particular service. Reedman explains that many of these privacy issues stem from the idea of mandated systems that people have to use, such as the national ID card scheme. People object to having their fingerprints kept on a database that is out of their control but they will use a fingerprint on their own PDA because they are in control of their own data, he says. Coventry adds that the link between biometrics and the ID card scheme has muddied the water between verification and authentication, which has impeded the progress of the field.
Jim Slevin, transport business manager at Human Recognition Systems, says that privacy and data protection issues are a “black cloud over the industry”. He says these issues are repeatedly raised by customers procuring biometric systems, and it is a requirement for companies to deliver.
But getting the public on board with biometrics is going to take more than addressing privacy concerns. Promoting biometric systems as convenience tools may help. Reedman explains: “We’ve never really marketed biometrics as a convenience tool, we’ve always marketed it as a security tool, which is a big mistake. If you can log onto your computer without having to remember a password simply by using a fingerprint or by looking at it, then that might sell.”
Coventry says that a lot of the time the public do not see the benefit in security. “Users just don’t act securely. Unless they are forced to secure something they won’t necessarily do so. Plenty of people don’t set pins on their mobile phones, so we need to broaden the understanding of secure behaviour. It’s not just about biometrics.”
Slevin explains that much of the research into biometric technology, devices and algorithms is at a point of maturity, so now the focus is on usability. He adds: “In the last year usability has come right out to the forefront of the agenda.”