The use of biometric tools to secure business assets and monitor employees is a growing trend. But is it right for your SMB?
By Debbi G. McCullough
Biometric security solutions—devices that use anatomical and physiological aspects of the human body, such as fingerprints, iris recognition, facial and voice recognition—are on the rise in the U.S. The trend could bring valuable tech benefits for your SMB—but there are risks to watch for, too.
The idea isn’t new—you’ve likely seen smartphones and laptops that offer a fingerprint scan as a more secure method of access than a password. Government agencies also employ the technology. For example, fingerprint readers now appear at border crossings in the U.S., helping immigration officials confirm identities and identify people on watch lists. Read about security and data backups for SMBs.
But the business applications are growing. For example, Meijer Inc., a supermarket chain in the Midwest, uses fingerprint readers at cash registers, allowing managers to monitor which employees log in and where. A growing number of companies use biometric tools (versus pins and passwords) for identity management of guests and employees, to protect intellectual property and to monitor access to inventory rooms, internal databases and other sensitive assets. Biometrics security also makes it easier for human-resource managers to track attendance and automate payroll, which helps to reduce errors, fraud and costs.
“Employers progressively find you can’t always trust people based on credentials [ID cards and PINs]—the only way is through biometrics,” says Dr. Anil Jain, a professor of computer science and engineering at Michigan State University and author of the textbook “Introduction to Biometrics.”
A growing trend
Exact numbers on how many businesses currently use biometrics are scarce, but Biometric Research Group Inc., a research and consulting firm, predicts the market for all biometric workplace management solutions will reach $600 million in sales by 2018. Separately, a recent report from market analyst firm Tractica predicts the biometrics market in the health-care industry worldwide will reach $12.5 billion in revenue by 2024.
In a January 2015 report, market research firm Juniper Research predicted that people will download 770 million biometric authentication apps annually by 2019, with fingerprint authentication counting for most. Research consultancy Acuity Market Intelligence forecasts a global market of 2.5 billion users with nearly 4.8 million biometric devices (smartphones, tablets and wearable mobile devices) by 2020.
Jain finds several factors driving the trend. Growing threats of terrorism makes biometrics, especially fingerprints, an efficient, thorough way to confirm identities at border crossings. From a business perspective, employers can confirm the identities of employees and guests to prevent financial fraud and cheating.
“People can fake documents or timecards; however, it’s very difficult to fake a fingerprint,” he says. “Biometric security provides employers with an audit trail more reliable, and more trustworthy, than just a lock and key.”
Range of products
Intriguing products exist for corporate use. John Trader, director of communications at M2SYS Technology, a biometric identification management company, finds fingerprint recognition the most used biometric modality among businesses, but recently, more employers are opting for iris recognition scanners, vascular biometrics (such as finger vein and palm vein pattern readers) and facial and voice recognition products as well.
“Companies, especially [in the] health-care and manufacturing industries, are moving beyond fingerprint recognition, which relies on skin integrity. Iris, facial and vascular biometrics provide more reliable and accurate recognition,” he says.
Growing demand also helps inspire more creative products. SRI International, a nonprofit research center, offers drive-through and walk-through iris recognition systems and handheld biometrics cameras, allowing users to capture subjects’ iris and facial images from 18 inches away. Intelligent Systems and Solutions, a product researcher and manufacturer, recently launched iSattva, a desktop time and attendance terminal powered by biometric fingerprint sensors. Read how security threats pose a big hurdle for SMBs as they move to BYOD.
Biometrics at work
Michael DeFalco, payroll manager at JMG Realty Inc. in Atlanta, Ga., replaced an archaic, cumbersome system keeping track of employees across several states with RightPunch, a PC-based biometric employee time clock using fingerprint readers. Using a web-based system alongside the finger scanners prevented employees punching one another’s timecards (causing the company financial loss) and HR and the employees found the system easy to follow.
“My team was freed up considerably and no longer had to fax over barely legible spreadsheets tracking people’s times,” DeFalco says, adding that the investment was not as high as he’d initially perceived; his company quickly made the money back.
Nonetheless, caveats exist. Jain cautions that employers must remain ethical and not share the personal biometric data with outsiders. Additionally, fingerprint scanning (and iris scanning) could reveal health conditions and any drug usage, he notes.
Maintaining the security of biometric systems and data provides another potential issue—employers must carefully secure the biometrics data to avoid theft. Employers must protect themselves also because enterprising users can fake fingerprints, for example, using a 3-D printer.
And while biometrics data is extremely accurate, nothing is 100% foolproof. “If employees’ fingerprints are too dry, moist or dirty, systems may not correctly recognize the noisy data,” he says. “We will definitely see more of biometrics in corporate environments—the systems do save time, money and improve security—but people must understand the limitations and make informed decisions.”
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