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Palm reading takes technological twist at university; Biometric scanners enter the world of secure access devices


University of Pennsylvania students may soon have a key to their dormitory that they're not likely to lose - their own hand.

The school has erected a two-door security portal to test a hand reader in a dorm that houses about 800 students. For the next semester, students registered to use the portal will use their hands in addition to their university identification cards to enter.

Such hand readers are part of the growing security field of biometrics. Iris scanners, fingerprint identifiers and voice-recognition systems once found only in science fiction and James Bond films are destined to become part of everyday life.

Within five years, the banking industry is expected to put a biometric scanner on automated teller machines to verify the card user. Some companies are already using them in critical areas.

Matching unique attributes

A biometric scanner recognizes a person through a distinguishing traits such as a fingerprint, voice inflections, vein patterns or face geometry. In most cases, the biometric system identifies a person by matching her unique trait with one in the system's database.

The technology has been around for several years in government agencies and pharmaceutical and defense companies that have high-level security needs. But biometrics has not been used often because of its high cost and its higher error rate than other traditional security systems, such as card readers or security guard desks.

Kastle Systems, an Arlington, Va., security services company, provides biometric readers to its clients, said the company's president, A. Gene Samburg. But of the 1,100 office buildings Kastle services, none has biometric systems at the front door, and only 1 percent of the 37,000 tenants in those buildings have a biometric reader in their offices.

According to Samburg, biometric readers can range in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars for one reader, making them cost-prohibitive and unnecessary for most office buildings.

Penn invested $30,000 to build the prototype and install the software needed to interface the hand reader with its existing system. Security Technologies Group helped the university install the hand scanners that read hand geometry, a system that was used at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

As part of the existing security system at the Hamilton House dorm, students use ID cards with magnetic strips to enter the dorm and other campus buildings. University officials hope the biometric scanner can free up one of the two security guards on duty in the dorm lobby for foot patrols in the West Philadelphia neighborhood.

Hands registered

To enter the dorm, students who have their hands registered in the system first swipe their identification card at the front of the portal to open the first door. Inside, a student stands on a yellow square and places his or her right hand on the reader. Once the reader verifies the hand, the system opens the second door to allow the person into the building.

Christopher D. Algard, Penn's associate director of security services, said the university planned to install a hand scanner in Harnwell House, another dormitory, soon. But this prototype will not include the card scanner.

"It will just be a portal that you walk through and, if there is a violation, the last set of doors will lock," Algard said.

Student acceptance of this new security technology has been mixed. Only 300 students, less than half of those who live in the building, enrolled in the test program. Some students who did register their hands said they were fascinated with the futuristic-looking scanner.

"I thought it was kind of cool," said sophomore Vikas Desai, who has used it several times. "But I don't use it that much, because it just seems easier to get into the building the old way."

It takes about 10 to 15 seconds to go through the portal, compared with five to six seconds to swipe an ID card, Algard said. The university is looking for ways to decrease the hand scanner's time to match the time of the ID card swipe, he added.

Sometimes, the hand reader does not identify a user's hand because jewelry or shirt sleeves that may have been recorded when the person was enrolled were not being worn, or part of the hand was covered when the student tried to use the portal, Algard said.

Biometric systems generate responses ranging from fear to a greater sense of security, according to Phillip Green, a senior technologist at American Management Systems.

"Users' perception of the security system and how much hassle they have to go through to use the technology play into their reaction to it," he said. "One of the main concerns of companies using biometrics has to be user acceptance. The less intrusive the system, the more readily it will be accepted."

At Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, the ski resort uses hand readers not for security purposes but as an electronic time card. Instead of filling out a time sheet on paper or punching a time clock, Taos employees scan their hands when they start work and again when they leave.

The hand-recognition system, used at Taos since September 1997, has reduced payroll paperwork from three days to one day. The system also allows the ski resort to keep more accurate time records of employees there.

Privacy concerns

Since most biometric scanners are used for security and not payroll purposes, the technology may be a threat to civil liberties, according to Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal.

"My major concern is not that these are invasions of privacy but that they will be abused and used in the wrong way either to intimidate people or used for common applications," he said.

A biometric scanner does not invade a person's privacy because it does not collect information that is intimate to you, Smith said. The device is only recording an external physical attribute.

If used properly, biometric systems could enhance privacy by eliminating the need for photographic identification and Social Security numbers, Smith said. However, it is possible that companies would turn over biometric databases to the FBI or other law-enforcement agencies.

Penn officials said they realized students would raise privacy concerns such as those Smith described. To address these issues, the university's division of public safety passed out flyers responding to commonly asked privacy questions.

While the hand readers are only being tested at dorms, they may eventually be used to control access to research laboratories, Algard said. But Penn would never consider using the biometric system in places with high traffic and low security concerns such as the library and classrooms, he added.

For the next few months, the university will study how much the system is used and how often it has false rejects or false accepts. If the hand reader proves not to be feasible, Penn will investigate other ways to improve its ID-card security system, said Dick Saunders, the business development manager of Security Technologies Group.

"The biggest problem with cards is, I can hand you my card and you can walk right in," Saunders said. "But you can't take my hand."

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