In the Eye of the Holder

JAMES BOND IS not the only one who depends on the wizardry of biometric tools like retinal scanning and voiceprint analysis. US agencies in charge of border and transportation security, as well as the military, are facing mandates requiring them to use biometrics.

The US Defense and State departments are already using biometric smart cards for building access, and the FAA is required to examine biometric identification for its employees under the Aviation Security Act, passed in 2001. The Driver's License Modernization Act, which calls for biometric licenses, is the closest the general public has come to the possibility of mandated biometrics. But the act hasn't seen any movement since May, the same month it was introduced to the House of Representatives, and a January proposal from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators calling for nationwide biometric licenses has gained little acceptance.

Before government officials move forward on any biometric usage, they need accuracy standards, so they've enlisted the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for help. A team of 15 is focused on determining the accuracy of current fingerprinting and face-recognition biometrics. Congress is scheduled to review the NIST's initial reports. They'll be available on NIST's website, www.nist.gov.

Martin Herman, NIST's information action division chief, says his department's current biometrics' standards research is driven mostly by two bills with steadfast deadlines: the USA Patriot Act, signed by the president in October 2001, and the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, passed this May. Both bills mandate increased border security and the use of biometrics by as early as 2004, when foreign travellers will need biometric visas to get into the US.

To meet those deadlines, officials will have to deal with the many variables of biometrics. Using recognition software to identify a face in a dim hallway is harder than if that person were in a well-lit room. And human error comes into play with fingerprinting. "We are running tests across these large databases and getting accuracy numbers of systems and algorithms," Herman says. "We use hundreds of thousands of samples from the State Department obtained in actual examples of people using travel documents."

For the next couple of years, the US federal government will be the number-one consumer of biometric technologies, according to Paul Collier, executive director of The Biometric Foundation. Collier calls the government "the perfect candidate" with its numerous facilities and staff strewn across the county. And, you could assume, the power to mandate that its own employees use the technology.

While the government might concur, average citizens are likely to be another matter entirely. When it comes to surrendering a thumbprint to the government, Americans may be more comfortable leaving all the nifty gadgetry to 007.

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