Face up to work

As we enter the new millennium, it is clear that we need to find more foolproof ways to identify ourselves. The good old-fashioned signature that has survived centuries of abuse is quickly becoming a thing of the past. When was the last time someone actually compared your signature with the one on the back of your credit card? At a restaurant recently, I was handed a credit card voucher to sign that was so small half my signature ended up on the tablecloth! They'd better not wash the tablecloth until they get paid!

As for credit card security, you might as well carry your credit limit in cash. Simply paying your restaurant bill with your credit card can result in thousands of dollars' worth of overseas transactions appearing on your next statement. Credit card fraud is rife.

Well, prepare yourself for the next wave of progressive lunacy. Biometrics is no longer the fantasy of Hollywood. Biometrics is the science that identifies people by using unique body characteristics such as fingerprints, and facial and voice patterns.

Fingerprint biometrics is the most common of these, and the one with which we are all familiar. Police around the world have been using it for decades to convict criminals. However, modern technology has made the electronic collection of fingerprints - to be stored as data - preferable to rolling your pinkie over an inkpad. Electronic scanning gives a higher level of detail and accuracy than can be obtained by the old, manual method.

Closely allied to fingerprint biometrics is palm-print recognition. The scanners used for this, rather than measuring the fine-lined palm-print, measure the geometry of the hand. This method of biometric identification was used during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics to regulate access to restricted areas. Palm scanners are larger and more expensive than fingerprint scanners. They are used in areas where dirty conditions make fingerprint scanners less reliable, such as a factory floor. Don't be surprised if at some time in the future the good old friendly handshake becomes more a means of identification than a welcoming gesture!

Optical recognition falls into two categories: retina and iris scanning. Both forms are more accurate than fingerprint or palm scanning because they match more characteristics. Citibank has reportedly signed a licensing agreement that will eventually see optical recognition features included in their ATMs.

Voice recognition is being widely used for dictation purposes, enabling users to convert their spoken words into hard copy. The technology is now finding its way into portable dictating machines. As a means of recognition, it is relatively inexpensive. However, it is not as accurate as other methods because the voice changes as a result of stresses such as laryngitis or a late night out.

Facial recognition works by scanning the face for points of difference that single out one face from another. This form of scan can be affected by expression, distance from the camera and the amount of light falling on the face. The more flexibility you allow within a system to compensate for these factors, the less accurate it becomes as a form of individual recognition.

Whatever the form, it will only be a matter of time before we see biometrics used extensively as a means of identification. As you enter your credit card details to buy something on the Internet, the camera on top of your PC could be verifying that you are the owner of the card. As you enter your PIN at the ATM, a camera or fingerprint scanner alongside the machine might ensure the PIN really belongs to you. The familiar cry of, "Honey, I'm home" might be used to open the garage door, unlatch the letter box and turn the sprinklers on.

If the thought of this doesn't spook you, then wait until some bright spark gets round to thinking about using DNA for electronic recognition purposes. Shhh! Big Brother is listening!

Well, I had better go to work and face up, sign in, look about, say a few words, lift a finger and get on with the countdown to the millennium meltdown!

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Reg King

PC World
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