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January 2007 Business

Biometrics between boom and big brother - By Ulrich Hottelet

The market for biometrics is growing. German companies are among the world's leading companies.

Making the homeland secure has created a boom for security electronics. Their global market expanded from ?16.6 billion ($22 billion) in 2000 to ?26.5 billion ($35 billion) in 2005.

While half of total sales stem from alarm systems, biometric products have seen an increase in sales recently. According to a study of the International Biometrics Group, the industry is expected to have revenues totaling  ?1.8 billion ($2.3 billion) this year. Estimates for global sales in 2010 run as high as ?4.9 billion ($6.5 billion). Inside Europe, Germany has the biggest biometrics market with last year's sales totaling ?95 million ($125 million).

"We expect an average annual growth of 25 percent until 2010," said Professor Jörg Menno Harms, vice president of the IT business association Bitkom and chairman of the supervisory board of Hewlett-Packard in Germany. "According to this scenario, the size of the German market will be worth almost ?300 million ($396 million) then. If we create more advantageous conditions, for example, by more public research funding, we could even achieve a market volume of more than ?400 million ($527 million)."

There are approximately 100 biometric companies in Germany, most of them in Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, and Hesse. Experts regard them as international leaders in the technology of face recognition.

While identifying fingerprints still encompasses 40 percent of the total market, face recognition is the second most widely used authentication technology.

Other physical characteristics typically measured are eye retinas and irises and hand measurements of, for example, the veins on the palm or back of the hand.

Bitkom sees such a great potential for biometrics that it recently identified it as one of the six "secret champions" of the German high-tech sector.

German passports with biometric data were introduced in November 2005 and. more than 1.5 million "epasses" have since been issued. They contain a RFID (radio frequency identification) chip that stores a digital photo of the owner's face. The storage of fingerprints, one from each hand, was recently postponed from March to November 2007, because, according to the German Interior Ministry, the EU Commission didn't deliver the necessary technical specifications in time. A third identifier, iris scans, could be added at a later stage.

The epass was mainly due to American pressure, namely to comply with the U.S. deadline for visa-waiver countries to introduce biometric passports. Experts expect that by 2010, about 43 countries will have introduced such first-generation passports that contain digital pictures.

In August, the U.S. government started issuing them. Their RFID chips are supplied by San Jose-based Infineon Technologies North America, a subsidiary of the semiconductor manufacturer Infineon from Munich, and by Dutch company Gemalto. Moreover, under the US-VISIT program, 32 million foreign visitors annually have their two index fingers scanned and a digital photograph taken to match and authenticate their travel documents. The Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recently announced that his department even plans to have all 10 fingers of foreign travelers scanned starting next year.

A lot of national and international state organizations and companies push the development of biometric technologies. In October, Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) started a unique search project at Mainz' central train station. It installed special cameras in the entrance hall.

With the help of software for face recognition, 200 test persons will be identified out of the mass of passengers. These volunteers agreed to pass the cameras at least once a day. Computers compare the pictures with a special file containing the data of the test persons. The pilot project will run until January 2007. The system could improve how criminals are identified in the future.

While this test operates with two-dimensional pictures, the three-year EU-funded project 3D Face stretches the technological boundaries one dimension further. Two-dimensional face recognition, in fact, shows some shortcomings. How a person is standing or illuminated when photographed may influence how the software performs.  Furthermore, the detection of fake attempts by using printed photos is now a time-consuming process. With 3D, the availability of accurate shape information in combination with texture data shall improve recognition performance.

3D Face has been developed by 12 European partners, including Sagem, Philips Research, Bundesdruckerei, Cognitec from Dresden, Berlin-Schönefeld airport and the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research IGD. Its Professor Christoph Busch emphasizes the goal that the data of the same person shall always create the same unique mathematical hash value. Whereas under the US-VISIT program, sensitive biometric raw data are directly stored in databases, only this hash value shall be stored in the future. "This is the preferable solution for privacy reasons," says Busch.

In fact, the fear of Big Brother led to strong criticism of biometrics in Germany where privacy concerns are traditionally strong. So Heinz Biermann, specialist for this technology at the federal commissioner for data protection, favors the hash value method, too, but says that it is unclear if all other nations will adopt this data protection friendly method, or if they still want to store the raw data. "In Germany we have precise rules about which authorities have access to data," he said. "As for other nations, we don't know."

As for the German epasses, he doesn't consider them problematic from a privacy point of view. "Even if you can copy the chip data, you still can't modify them or make a new passport, because it will lack the necessary electronic signature."

- Ulrich Hottelet is a freelance journalist in Berlin.

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