The human touch

Jamie and Adam have been at it again. In an episode of MythBusters on the National Geographic Channel, the two technically talented skeptical program hosts successfully defeated a fingerprint lock. They stole a fingerprint from the authorized user and then copied it on to latex, ballistic gel, and even photocopy paper. The most they needed to do to make their copies work was to lick them to defeat the lock’s “live-ness” parameters. The blogosphere was bubbling with scathing commentary for ages—comments like, “Amazing, two guys just blow millions of dollars of research out the window.”

But is it as bad as all that? Professor Stephanie Schuckers of Clarkson University is known for spoofing biometric systems on behalf of, among others, the US Office of Homeland Security. You might expect her to be joining the bloggers, but she says you have to match the technology with the security need. “What security do we have in place now?” she asks. “Keys mostly. Does biometrics give me what I need for residential use in a typical neighborhood?  Well, it’s as secure as keys and it’s more convenient.”

It took the MythBusters three days to get their imitation fingerprints, and they had access to someone who could steal an original. Schuckers says that’s not so easy: “Of course a fingerprint lock can be spoofed, but you have to consider any application in relation to the level of vulnerability. I mean, you can leave keys on the desk while you go to the bathroom.”

Give it time
But the market doesn’t seem to be ready for residential biometrics yet.  Ronny Belin, Business Development Manager for the South Korean ASSA ABLOY subsidiary iRevo, has done research on Scandinavian consumer attitudes, and he found that biometric locks were at the bottom of the scale of consumer interest for residential use. “People are always asking about it,” he says. “They say, ‘Hey, when will we be able to unlock our doors just by showing our fingerprint,’ but it’s mostly hype so far—everyone’s waiting.” 

Paul Everett of IMS Research, who has produced reports on the market for electronic physical access control equipment, says that biometrics remain at the bottom of the list. “Other electronics are still more likely,” he says. “Cards can be used, for example, to get into the carpark, the building and the flat.”

Erik Hellquist of ASSA ABLOY’s market intelligence unit, says that people are still worried about biometric security: “They wonder if it can be manipulated, and what happens if it doesn’t recognize my fingerprint, and whether the door is really locked when I go out.” But he points out that a major player in the United States has just introduced a fingerprint lock. “It’s beginning to move from a gadget into the mainstream,” he says. 

A top-end solution
In South Korea, iRevo has introduced a fingerprint-based “digital door lock” to add to its existing card-based range. Nam Khyung-Ah, General Manager, Global Sales Division, says, “Even though the Korean market is oriented towards hi-tech, Koreans are hesitating to adopt the fingerprint.” Irevo is marketing it to builders putting up top-end apartment projects. “The builder wants a selling point,” says Nam, “and we think the fingerprint lock will offer a certain sophistication.” In China the market may be more open, since major local players have introduced middle-range fingerprint locks. “That could draw attention to the product,” she says.

But she’s keen to point out that the scanning method used on Irevo locks is superior to the optical reader used on middle-range locks (as well as on the unfortunate victim of the MythBusters). “Our reader is based on technology from a Korean firm, Suprema,” she says. “They also make optical readers, but we chose their thermal swipe scanners, because we thought they were better.”  Instead of just placing a finger on the reader (with the side-effect that one might produce a neat fingerprint for someone to steal), the swipe scanner requires the finger to be moved from the top to the bottom of the reader. “It recognizes the fingerprint section by section, and it’s almost impossible for the whole picture to be copied.”

Fine tuning
That has the disadvantage that it’s a bit harder to get it right, and iRevo’s Ronny Belin admits that fingerprint locks will not suit everyone. A family consisting of
a homemaker whose fingerprints have been worn away by years of cleaning the kitchen, a motor mechanic whose fingers are always covered in oil, and a fidgety child who can’t learn the correct swipe movement, are probably not the target customers. “You’d have to try it out first,” he says. And you do have to have a back-up system—otherwise a deep cut on your finger could shut you out of your home for a long time. But for many people it could be the right solution.

“We’ve always seen fingerprints being used in the movies to get into sensitive premises like the White House,” says Belin, “so we’ve linked it in our minds with security. But the breakthrough in residential use will be because of convenience. Of course, you can use a PIN code if you want to go jogging without carrying a key with you, but biometrics is more secure and also more convenient.” 

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