Can Biometrics Make a Comeback?


After many false starts, biometric security solutions may have a chance of making it into the mainstream enterprise, thanks in part to Apple’s decision to integrate biometric security into its new iPhone 5S.

If the iPhone 5S can make users comfortable with the idea of swiping their fingers to access their personal data and make purchases on the iTunes store, why shouldn’t biometrics be just as usable in the enterprise?

While biometrics seems to be on an upswing, it is not all that new. "Biometrics on mobile devices is not a new concept; the first commercial device to embed a fingerprint sensor was launched back in 1999. What we have now, and what has changed in the last 18 months, is a much more favorable environment in which biometrics on mobile devices will flourish," said Alan Goode, founder of Goode Intelligence.

Earlier this month Goode released a 66-page report titled "Mobile Biometric Security Market Forecast Report 2013 – 2018" that provides detailed regional and global market forecasts for the mobile biometric security sector.

Some of that enthusiasm may have been tempered by reports of a successful hack of the iPhone's Touch ID feature, just 48 hours after the phone hit the market. Still, despite security concerns associated with the iPhone 5S, new technologies that make it easier to adopt and use biometrics are on the rise, many of which solve the problems of the past, while ultimately making it easier and more secure for users to access their IT systems.

Sign of the Biometric Future?

Take for example what the computer scientists at the Battelle Institute are developing, a three-dimensional input device that doubles as a foolproof security device. Based upon the recently released Leap Motion 3D controller, Battelle has developed a product called SignWave Unlock, which makes advanced biometric security available to almost any platform.

SignWave Unlock uses 3D imaging to detect the biological uniqueness of a user’s hand, looking at elements such as the distance between fingertips and knuckles, the length of fingers and many other aspects that, for security purposes, Battelle has not made public. When implemented, a simple wave of the hand can unlock a system and then perform a single sign-on event – effectively eliminating the need for passwords or other security technologies.

While there are several advantages associated with Battelle’s solution, one of the key elements is that it offers more than just biometric security. Since the product leverages the $79.99 Leap Motion, those who adopt Battelle’s solution will also benefit from 3D input technology. Simply put, hand motions and gestures can be used to control the system, and 3D apps can be purchased from Airspace, the Leap application store.

For enterprise users, however, it takes a bit more than local biometric security to fulfill the complex requirements of protecting access and corporate data. Those demands require that security be centrally managed, fully integrated and easily audited. To date, those capabilities have been hard to come by, especially when using third-party biometric devices.

Biometrics for the Enterprise

But thanks to the resurgence of interest in biometric security, many software vendors are now developing tools, or modernizing existing ones to work with a wide variety of biometric devices and integrate those devices into enterprise authentication systems, such as Microsoft’s Active Directory or LDAP.

For example, vendors such as Identity One have released new software suites that bring biometric support to enterprise access control systems. What’s more, the company’s latest suite of products works with multiple third-party devices and network operating systems.

And Identity One is not the only player in the field. M2SYS, a company that integrates the support of biometric devices into its secure sign-on platform, offers a multi-lingual, cross-platform security suite that brings SSO (single sign on) capabilities to a multitude of applications and systems.

Other vendors looking to expand the use of biometrics in the enterprise include Privaris and IdentityStream. In addition, such big names as IBM, Dell and HP have identified biometrics as a potentially large market, one fueled by the number of devices, such as notebook computers, that are coming with fingerprint sensors already installed. Analysts also expect other biometric systems, such as retina identification, face recognition and voice recognition, to enter the market.

Ryan Hurst, CTO of enterprise SaaS CA authority GlobalSign, believes that biometric technology could turn out to be highly beneficial to organizations looking to protect their data -- but it depends a great deal on how it’s implemented.

"The recent confirmation of the integration of biometrics in the new iPhone has many asking what the implications are for enterprises. It is too early to tell for sure as the answer will depend on how they have implemented this feature, said Hurst in an emailed statement.

Frank J. Ohlhorst is an award-winning technology journalist, professional speaker and IT business consultant with over 25 years of experience in the technology arena. He has written for leading technology publications including Computerworld, TechTarget, PCWorld, ExtremeTech and Tom's Hardware and business publications, including Entrepreneur and Forbes. He was also executive technology editor for Ziff Davis Enterprise's eWeek and director of the CRN Test Center.