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Lunchroom palm scanners gave students intro to biometrics

After a couple months of paying for lunch with their palms, students at 10 Carroll County schools are going back to buying pizza and tots using less Bond-like methods. While parent concerns about privacy led their superintendent to hit the breaks on the PalmSecure technology, they can expect to be asked for their biometrics again — and again and again — as they grow older, and even to willingly pay (whatever the method) to give them up.

Thanks in no small part to Hollywood, security is the first application many of us consider when we think about biometrics, or measuring or analyzing biological data.

As biometrics become more accurate and efficient, proving you're you with part of you could become as ubiquitous as passwords are today. Institutions like biometrics because they're harder to fake than passwords. Privacy fears notwithstanding, users like biometrics because they're impossible to forget.

The palm scanning system adopted by Carroll schools, which will continue to be used at the buildings that already have it until officials find an alternative, promises over 99 percent accuracy by scanning unique vein patterns with infrared light. Its underlying technology is several years old and is already being used in some ATMs and retail checkouts in Japan.

Carroll County — among more than 50 U.S. school districts to use palm scanners, according to USA Today — implemented them mainly to speed up transactions so children had more time to eat, officials told The Sun in October.

Governments, banks and other institutions with sensitive materials might choose it because, unlike fingerprinting, or even many face or eye scans, which can be forged through photography (yes, including the Face Unlock feature available on newer Android phones), PalmSecure needs a live human, according to its Japanese manufacturer, Fujitsu. To achieve such "liveness detection" for eye verification, a Kansas City company is using an approach similar to Fujitsu's, Byte reported earlier this week.

Health and wellness is another area ripe with biometrics applications. The ability to automatically and unobtrusively measure and process feedback from the body extends doctors' reach, allowing them to build a fuller profile of their patients, spot warning signs earlier, and let patients recover in the comfort of their own homes.

Fitness, where the Nike FuelBand and similar products are already making a splash, could be one of the most lucrative categories in the consumer market. About one out of three companies listed as biometrics exhibitors at next month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas sell or are working on fitness-related products, according to their websites.

Among them is InteraXon. The Canadian company says its MUSE brain-sensing headband, by analyzing electrical activity, allows wearers to better manage their mind, and even to control things with it, from dimming the lights to pouring a beer. A teacher's call to "put your thinking caps on" could soon have a whole new meaning.

Which brings us back to Carroll County schools. The wide array of potential uses for biometrics is exciting, but it also underscores parents' concerns.

Security experts tell us not to repeat passwords, so if one account gets hacked, the others remain protected, and, if we must write passwords down, to store them in a secret place. We have only one set of biometrics, however, and we take them everywhere we go.

A previous version of this post incorrectly described the status of Carroll County schools palm scanners that were already installed. The Sun regrets the error.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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