Take a walk through any office building and the likelihood of finding login passwords affixed to computer monitors or sitting on desks is disconcertingly high. Like leaving the key in the file cabinet, writing down passwords provides thieves with access to vast amounts of sensitive data. However there is technology available that could provide a solution to this and countless other security weaknesses in your business: biometric security.
Traditionally, access to secure buildings or computer systems is granted by something you have, such as a keycard, or something you know, such as password. A biometric security device measures a unique physiological characteristic, something you are, to authenticate you.
Biometric technologies are available commercially in many different forms, but by far the most common devices are fingerprint readers and hand geometry scanners. Businesses use fingerprint scanners in laptops (many enterprise-targeted laptops have them as a standard feature), as stand-alone USB devices, affixed to keyboards and mice, integrated into a portable storage device, or for physical security. Hand geometry readers are usually only used for physical security. While costs have decreased dramatically, iris and retina scanners still don’t justify their expense except in locations that require very high security.
Choosing the right biometric device depends on your needs. Fingerprint readers are usually small and portable, ideal for use on a desk. They are perfect for single-user identification, such as an employee logging in to his or her computer and accessing secure information. They are very affordable, but you usually cannot program in more than 100 different users. Hand geometry scanners are more expensive and take up more space than fingerprint scanners but can accommodate large numbers of people. Commercial retina and iris scanners can cost between $2,000 and $10,000, are considered highly invasive by users, and have a slow throughput. However, they have the highest accuracy rates of any commercial biometric security product.
Should you use biometric security? It depends. Do the benefits outweigh the costs? When used correctly, biometric security devices are more secure than traditional methods. The benefit, then, derives from the value of the data you are trying to protect. For example, if digitized medical records are stolen from a doctor’s office, that doctor potentially faces steep fines under federal law. The benefit to him is the cost of fines he avoids if his data is properly secured.
Additionally, biometric identifiers cannot be written down or lost, and in all but the most extreme cases they cannot be stolen. Replacing passwords with fingerprinting increases efficiency at the user level and doesn’t require users to remember their passwords. Biometric devices also relieve your IT department from the task of managing passwords.
Biometric security does have drawbacks. Installation can be complicated and costly and the return on investment is usually difficult to quantify. Additionally, biometric technology is not perfect. Most fingerprint scanners have an error rate of about 1 percent to 3 percent. Some biometric identifiers can become altered over time, causing the system to falsely reject a user. Nearly all of the technologies can be fooled fairly easily by a reproduction of a given feature.
For implementation on a small scale, these problems become much less significant. It is only on a large scale that they can seriously decrease the feasibility or efficacy of a system. Unfortunately on both a small and large scale, users may consider fingerprint or hand geometry systems to be an invasion of their privacy and reject them altogether. Where a password is not personal, handing over their biometric data could make users squeamish. Once a user’s biometric data is compromised it cannot be “reissued” like a password or a keycard.
As more and more sensitive personal information is stored digitally, the cost of not sufficiently securing that information increases. There is still technological progress to be made, and as that happens, accuracy and reliability will increase and biometrics as a security solution will become more widely adopted. Even so, whether you have a small retail store with five employees, a doctor’s office, or a large corporation, biometrics can provide your organization with a viable security solution.