Tech Talk: Match Points

April 1, 2008
Biometrics: Is it an option?

In these trying times, educators are experiencing new security challenges. Recent events highlight one critical issue: safety. Technology is not a panacea for all such concerns — particularly those related to internal threats — but it can enhance security, access control and communications within schools. The question of the day: Is education ready for biometrics?

The greatest opportunity for biometrics to improve the school environment is in providing access control, positive identification and a record of those entering and leaving school buildings. Biometric systems are automated methods of recognizing a person based on a physiological or behavioral characteristic. Schools are using hand geometry and fingerprint identification to a greater extent as a standard for digital signatures and authentication for self-entry.

Some sophisticated systems incorporate biometric devices based on fingerprints, voiceprints and retinal patterns to control access to restricted areas. As camera technology improves and computer-processing costs decline, biometric systems are gaining acceptance as a viable method of access control. But the systems are not without problems. It turns out that people's fingerprint images are of varying quality. Some have defined grooves and valleys, but others have wornout fingers.

Fingerprint authentication has the following advantages over passwords, smart cards or tokens: In terms of security and convenience, a fingerprint can't be stolen for use by others; it can't be forgotten; and it is with a person all the time. For anyone responsible for security, those appear to be good reasons to jump at this technology. But administrators should consider other issues. How user-friendly and accurate is a fingerprint system? Look at measures such as false-acceptance rate (the percentage of impostors accepted) and false-rejection rate (percentage of authorized users rejected).

Educators need to be better informed to understand the value biometrics can bring to a security system. The industry as a whole must work harder to dispel misconceptions and separate the value that biometric user identification provides from “Big Brother” fears. We need to be clear that biometrics are part of a security system and can work harmoniously with other existing infrastructures to deliver better, more convenient security solutions. Another issue of consideration is privacy; as more personal data enters a system, who has access to it and how can it be used? These questions will need to be addressed.

Biometric systems will not prevent violence and threats, but establishing a controlled environment to which only authorized personnel have access enables other security measures to be more effective. A centralized access-control system also could make it possible to “lock down” part or all of a school during a crisis.

Day is former senior analyst at KBD Planning Group, Young Harris, Ga., a firm specialized in educational facilities and technology planning. 

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