Biometrics: The coming of age
Despite integrated circuit card technology being available for many years, very few South Africans carry smart cards in their wallets for payment, identification or healthcare transactions.
Some chip-based applications such as social grants disbursement systems have been implemented but they are still highly specialised and proprietary. The same applies to biometric technologies, which have seen tremendous growth in performance, availability and affordability, and yet very few wide-spread systems are in place.
If those technologies address so many business and security requirements for transacting, why aren`t they more present in our everyday life?
The answer used to lie for a big part in the lack of standards for platforms, applications and acceptance infrastructures. Interoperability is the keyword, and standardisation initiatives such as ISO`s BioAPI, Visa and MasterCard`s EMV chip cards or ICAO`s (International Civil Aviation Organisation`s) biometric passports are unlocking the potential for full-scale chip and biometric implementations.
Furthermore, this technological interoperability can be backed by legal frameworks for electronic signatures, of which the South African Electronic Communications and Transactions Act is an example.
When Visa and MasterCard have enforced the use of smart card technology in the payment world, they have incidentally made other chip-based business cases viable in the field of multi-application (eg loyalty, authentication). We can expect a similar effect from the ICAO move to enforce biometrically-enabled travel documents. Standards are generally recognised as a key success factor to the long-term success of the biometrics market, and have become a strategic business issue. Biometrics and smart cards vendors have to provide increased flexibility, time to market and ease of use while decreasing total cost of ownership.
Interoperability is a vital prerequisite to allowing choice and flexibility between several types of biometrics, but will not determine which option is the most suitable to a specific environment. The choice of a biometric method obviously involves cost and performance, but should also include social factors.
A retina or even fingerprint scan will generally be seen as more intrusive than face or signature recognition, and will impact end-user acceptance. Biometric identification, however, does not always have to force the end-user into a new and intrusive process, as some biometrics also reproduces established behaviours. This is the case for electronic signature verification which replicates a culturally accepted ritual for commitment, identification and authenticity.
Environmental, ethnic and even religious considerations might have to be taken into account to guarantee end-user acceptance. The importance of the aforesaid characteristics is especially relevant in the complex South African environment. Building systems for use in Africa presents specific challenges, vastly different from those applicable to standard corporate environments.
Finally, the rapid convergence of wireless communications and financial transactions must be seen as a background to any wide-scale biometric implementation. If the smart card/fingerprint biometric pair (often referred to as "smarter cards") is currently seen as a perfect match for secure transacting, a careful watch must be kept on other leading and emerging technologies.
Technologies such as facial print scanning, voice or signature verification biometrics, digital rights management, cellular or near field communications as well as personal security modules, might converge faster than expected in the close future, on the back of mature interoperability standards and legal frameworks.