Comdex: Panel predicts biometrics shakeout

LAS VEGAS - The U.S. government is lagging behind those of other nations in the adoption of biometric technology, participants said during a panel discussion at the Comdex trade show yesterday. They also predicted profound changes in the biometrics industry in the coming years, as hundreds of small companies consolidate into a dozen or so large vendors.

The discussion was part of the U.K. Day press conference and highlighted technologies developed or nurtured in the United Kingdom.

Representatives from the British government shared the stage with biometric technology specialists and industry watchers including Dr. John Daugman of the University of Cambridge, Stewart Mann, CEO of EyeTicket Corp. of McLean, Va., and Brian Ruttenbur, a biometrics industry research analyst at investment company Morgan Keegan & Company Inc., in Memphis, Tenn.

The discussion followed a lengthy and sometimes mind-bending presentation by Daugman, who has written many of the complex algorithms used to discern differences between individual irises.

According to panel members, biometric technology is just completing its "proof of concept" stage, and will find greater use by governments and in the private sector in the coming years.

"No company has been making money on biometrics. We've spent the last three years proving that [biometric technology] does work and that it can work," said Mann, whose company makes iris recognition security products.

Governments will likely be early adopters of biometric technology, with business applications taking a back seat to solutions for border control and for identifying citizens, panel members said. Photo passports might give way to smart card-type devices that contain biometric data, or so-called "paperless passports" in which biometric data such as a retinal scan is sufficient to grant entry to a country.

Pointing to two developments that could spur government investment in biometric technology, Ruttenbur noted the requirement of biometric authentication in the recently passed Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, and the U.S. Defense Department's plan to include biometric data on their Common Access Card smart cards by 2004.

Legislation and smart cards aside, Mann said the U.S. government would still lag behind those of other nations in the use of biometric technologies.

"It's going to take the U.S. significantly longer to work through this," Mann said. "[Sept. 11] didn't provide a boost for biometric security, it just introduced new complexities."

Among the complexities, Mann and others said, were disagreements over which types of biometric technology -- face recognition, iris and retinal scanning or voice recognition, for example -- were the most effective.

Meanwhile other governments, including Britain's, were more aggressive in conducting pilot programs that use biometric technology, the first stage in preparing for its everyday use, Mann said. One panel member Chris Hurrey, an inspector in the border control modernization project, spoke about his agency's use of retinal scanning to speed visitors through customs when entering the U.K.

Widespread adoption of biometric technology will bring about consolidation in the industry, according to Ruttenbur, as investors push for profits from biometric companies. The few companies that win the first big private and government contracts will be at a considerable advantage over smaller start-ups, Ruttenbur said.

When the dust settles, hundreds of small biometrics companies will likely have gone out of business or merged with other companies, leaving only a handful, according to Ruttenbur.

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