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Biometric ID Systems Used to Bolster Security (May 10, 2005)

An ATM with a palm-scanner (Jiji)
In a world increasingly dependent on electronically stored information, both consumers and businesses are seeking greater data security. The answer could lie in biometric identification, in which the unique characteristics of part of a person's body - their hands, for example, or the pattern of their irises - are used to verify the identity of that individual. Some Japanese banks have already begun installing biometric ID systems at their ATMs in an effort to combat cash-card fraud. But biometric ID has many other uses, including keeping track of who enters and leaves offices, protecting computers from tampering, and preventing unauthorized entry to apartment buildings. Manufacturers of these hi-tech security systems report that demand is booming.

Banks Step Up ATM Security
Until recently cash cards were regarded as quite safe, providing users kept their PIN numbers secret. But criminals have developed several ways of beating this traditional form of security. These include a technique called "skimming," in which the criminals temporarily steal cash cards from wallets left in locker rooms, for example, use scanning devices to read the data stored on them, and replace the cards before their owners return. They then use the stolen data to withdraw money from the victim's account.

A recent series of skimming cases has prompted calls by depositors for banks to bolster cash-card security, and some banks are fitting biometric ID systems to their ATMs to prevent such crimes. These systems use the features of a customer's hand or finger - which are unique to each individual - to ensure that only cardholders can withdraw money from bank accounts.

First, an infrared scan is taken of the veins on the customer's palm or fingertip, and the data from the scan is stored in an IC chip embedded in the cash card. When using the ATM, the customer places his or her hand or fingertip on a scanning device, which verifies whether the pattern of veins matches that stored on the card. The reliability of palm and fingertip systems is about the same, the main difference being that the palm-based system enables the scanning of a wider area of blood vessels, while the fingertip system's smaller scanning area means that there is less data to process, resulting in slightly faster scans.

Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi began introducing a system that scans the veins on the palm of the hand to verify the identity of ATM users in October 2004. Other financial institutions are also installing palm- or finger-recognition systems to their ATMs in a concerted effort to protect their customers from cash-card crime.

A Multitude of Applications
The use of biometric ID systems is not limited to the banking sector. The last few years have seen several incidents in which personal information on customers held by Internet providers and other companies has been mislaid or leaked, revealing vulnerabilities in how such data is stored and managed. The entry into force of the Personal Information Protection Law in April 2005 has made preventing such incidents an even more urgent task, and biometric systems are seen as an effective solution. Companies that make these systems report receiving a flood of inquiries in recent months.

Much of the demand has been from businesses keen to use the devices to control who enters and leaves their offices or who uses computers storing important data. At a cost of around ¥70,000 ($667 at ¥105 to the dollar) for one device for use with a computer, biometric ID systems do not come cheap. But one manufacturer reports that in the six months from October 2004 to March 2005 it sold as many of the devices as it had in the previous three years.

Biometric devices are also garnering attention as a means of preventing terrorism, as they offer a way to bolster the systems that monitor and control who enters and leaves a country. To prevent criminals or terrorists from entering Japan using forged passports, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs plans to introduce a new type of passport in March 2006. The new passports will be fitted with an IC chip containing image data on the physical characteristics of the holder, which can be matched against those of the person presenting the document at passport control or customs. Trials using two different types of biometric passport - SPT (Simplifying Passenger Travel) Cards, which store data on the carrier's face, fingerprints, and iris, and e-Passports, which store image data on the carrier's face - were conducted at Narita Airport in February and March 2005.

Biometric ID systems are also finding a market among ordinary households. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. sells a device that recognizes people by scanning the patterns of their irises, and this system is used in some condominiums to prevent unauthorized entry. NEC, meanwhile, has developed face-recognition technology that uses a digital camera to distinguish people by the undulations and depth of their faces, and it has recently been marketing the device as part of a system for managing computers. And NTT DoCoMo, a major cell-phone provider, sells a cell phone that recognizes the user through his or her fingerprint.

As the need for failsafe ways to identify individuals becomes more and more acute, biometric identification is likely to play an increasing role in protecting valuable data and property, as well as in strengthening border security. Companies engaged in the development and production of biometric equipment can expect to see growing demand for their products in the years to come.

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Copyright (c) 2005 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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