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Biometrics is the future

Multi-modal, all purpose smart cards are the way forward for India, say experts at the seventh BT Round Table.

twitter-logo Manu Kaushik        Print Edition: April 20, 2008

In these digitised times, any mention of the word “security” almost immediately conjures up thoughts of usually incomprehensible articles on BlackBerrys and 256-bit encryption technology (anything less is deemed to have gone out of style with Queen Victoria), firewalls and other hi-tech gobbledygook that almost every guest at every cocktail party seems to know everything about. What we seem to forget in this mad rush to be seen as card-carrying citizens of this post-modern—and, dare one say, post-physical—world is that identity-based physical security remains, by far, the more important issue for authorities and security planners the world over.

The panellists (from L to R): Tarvinder S. Sembhi, President, 4G Informatics; Phalguni Gupta, Professor, Department of Computer Science & Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur; Arnab Mitra, Deputy Editor, Business Today; and Ajai Chowdhry, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, HCL Infosystems
The panellists
But there’s a need for a different type of card—one that can be used as a voter ID card, PAN card, driving licence and social security and medical insurance card as well. This emerged at the seventh Business Today Managing Tomorrow Series panel discussion on The Future of Identity: Managing Next Generation Security Systems, held in Delhi on March 14 in association with NEC Corporation. The panel comprised Tarvinder S. Sembhi, President, 4G Informatics, a company that specialises in developing and deploying identity management solutions; Phalguni Gupta, Professor, Department of Computer Science & Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur; and Ajai Chowdhry, Chairman & CEO, HCL Infosystems. The discussion was moderated by Arnab Mitra, Deputy Editor, Business Today.

Sembhi kicked off the discussion, highlighting the broad spectrum of areas that can benefit from better management of identity. “Compared to a few years ago, when biometric systems were primarily used for maintaining criminal and forensic records, identity management systems have come a long way over the last 10 years. Following the introduction of robust fingerprint and face recognition techniques, governments around the world are increasingly turning to biometrics in an attempt to increase security, and to produce more secure identity documents,” he said, adding that it’s not just the government. The private sector, too, is taking advantage of the technology as the commercial benefits of biometrics become more tangible.

Result: identity management and biometrics are now being talked of in the same breath. “Countries across the world are taking the biometric security route. For example, the US has started issuing biometric-enabled passports and the UK and UAE use smart cards as ID proof,” said Sembhi. In India, too, the use of biometric security systems will increase in various government programmes. “As the Indian government continues to drive trading relationships with its neighbours, it will need stronger identity management and authentication solutions to ensure that only bona fide people can travel back and forth across borders,” he added.

Phalguni Gupta, Professor, Department of Computer Science & Engineering, IIT Kanpur
Phalguni Gupta
The science of biometrics is still in a fledgling state in this country. But with the Indian economy growing at a record pace, the use of biometric solutions will only increase. Sembhi is emphatic that physical security cannot be limited to access control only. Biometrics can also weed out many of the inefficiencies that have crept into various public distribution schemes. “Biometrics can help the government of the day to create a unique database of beneficiaries that can then be used for the distribution of ration cards, and flood and other relief and also deliver the benefits of employment generation programmes (like NREGS) to the target population,” he said.

IIT professor Gupta spoke of individual security and the critical issues involved in designing a biometric system. There is, he pointed out, a need for a multimodal biometric system that will meet stringent performance requirements across different stages of security. “Biometric systems are far from being foolproof,” he said. “Most systems deployed in real world applications are unimodal and rely on the evidence of a single source of biometric information for authentication—for example, single fingerprint, face, iris, ear, skin or retina. On the other hand, multi-modal systems utilise more than one physiological or behavioural characteristics for enrollment, verification and identification, and, hence, are more accurate,” he added.

Tarvinder S. Sembhi, President, 4G Informatics
Tarvinder S. Sembhi
People in India are still not familiar with the advantages of biometrics and, in many cases, resist its implementation. “A couple of years ago, the acceptance of biometric technology was considered a sure thing. But in the real world, Indians are reluctant to use biometrics due to the social stigma attached to it,” he says, adding that in his experience, many people object to being fingerprinted. “‘I’m not a criminal,’ and ‘I’m educated; I’ll sign; why do you want my fingerprints?’ are just two of the common objections that people have,” he said, adding that if implemented properly, biometric solutions can be a boon to the Central and state governments, the defence and security forces and for private corporations.

Asked how far India is from the universal deployment of biometric systems, Gupta stressed that in order to encourage more widespread use of biometrics, everybody— the government, the corporate sector and individuals—has to come forward and cooperate. “Governments and corporations maintain secure networks worldwide. Access to these networks involves the use of a network login identity associated with a password or personal identification number (PIN). Biometrics will change this.”

Ajai Chowdhry, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, HCL Infosystems
Ajai Chowdhry
Chowdhry of HCL Infosystems stressed the necessity of looking at the issue of physical security and identity management holistically. “When we start to look at all aspects of security in today’s world, surveillance and access control play a huge role in physical security. Considering the information explosion around us, there is a need to ensure that wrong people don’t get access to personal data. Hence, you need to look at a ubiquitous security solution… a security that should be available real time and on demand,” he said.

Tomohiro Yagi, CEO, NEC Asia & MD, NEC India
Tomohiro Yagi
At the organisational level, Chowdhry said, many companies are trying to develop securityrelated best practices. “It is not only outsiders who can be dangerous to an organisation; employees or outsourced partners can also pose serious threats to sensitive information and data,” he added.

Focussing on national identity instruments for citizens, he agreed with Sembhi and Gupta that in these days of terrorism, militancy and strife, physical security has become a paramount concern. “Such incidents (of infiltration across the national borders by undesirable foreign nationals) are constantly on the rise.” A pilot scheme based on the multi-purpose national ID Card (MNIC) is currently in progress. “However, the problem is that every agency is coming up with its own identity cards. Unless we have national ID cards, we are going to see people carrying 5-6 cards in their pockets. This will increase the cost of implementation,” he added.

All ears: The audience follows the discussion attentively
The audience follows the discussion attentively
Business Today’s Mitra summed up the discussion saying: “Biometrics clearly is the good idea whose time has come. Politicians can delay its implementation, but are unlikely to be able to stop its march.”

Earlier, in his welcome speech, Tomohiro Yagi, Managing Director, NEC India, and CEO, NEC Asia, set the tone for the discussion that followed. He pointed out that security is an important issue for businesses worldwide. “Physical security solutions are becoming more personalised and the same solution or system can be implemented in different countries, or can be customised depending on a country’s regulations, customs and religions,” said Yagi, adding that his company has experience in working with various governments in Asia region on several biometric security projects.

The event concluded with a vote of thanks by Mitra.

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