Biometrics - technology that uses bodily measurements to verify a person's identity - proved more popular with consumers in one recent test than traditional passwords, and fingerprint scans won out overall.

Fingerprint scans beat voice, facial, and signature scans in tests done with 240 people by the International Biometric Group. Least popular were keystroke scans, which measure the ways users press keys on a keyboard, and traditional passwords. The New York firm plans to release the tests' full results Jan. 3. International Biometric Group carried out its most recent tests in September and October on behalf of 25 sponsors, including Visa International and the Financial Services Technology Consortium.

Ten biometric systems - six fingerprint scanners and one system each for signature, voice, face, and keystroke technologies - were tested. The group invited the 90 members of the consortium, which is made up mostly of banks, with some vendors, to sponsor the tests or buy the results.

One reason fingerprint scans proved popular, said Samir Nanavati, a partner in the International Biometric Group, is that "they're quick and easy to use to verify someone." When people used the systems, he said, "they realized they were arguably easier than having to remember a password."

Though the tests showed that physiological biometrics such as finger, facial, iris, or hand scans are more popular than behavioral biometrics such as voice, signature, or keystroke scans, the physiological methods were also shown to be less accurate in some cases.

"Behavioral biometrics used to be less popular than physiological biometrics, but they have made dramatic strides, and they have improved in accuracy," Mr. Nanavati said.

The tests indicated that some fingerprint systems lose the ability to verify users reliably in as little as six weeks because fingers can be affected by abrasions, weather, humidity, and temperature, Mr. Nanavati said.

Six weeks after the fingerprint systems were installed, their false rejection rates rose by as much as 400%. Only one system was totally unaffected. The upshot, Mr. Nanavati said, is that the systems must be designed to accommodate the effects of the seasons and changes in the skin's surface.

Overall, the biometric systems were found to be more accurate in this year's test than in a similar one done in 1998. The systems showed significant improvement in three categories: verifying authorized users, rejecting unauthorized users, and ensuring that a very high percentage of people can use them.

In previous tests, some technologies had double-digit false rejection rates. The new round of testing had several systems, using various biometric technologies, with false rejection rates of less than 1%.

For some applications, the false acceptance rate, or unauthorized users who could be accepted by the system, was nearly zero. If biometrics are to gain widespread credence, Mr. Nanavati said, they must demonstrate this degree of accuracy over a long term.

Even if a biometric system is highly resistant to break-ins, large-scale deployment may not be possible if the system cannot enroll a significant number of users, he said. The "ability to verify" measurement reflects a system's ability to enroll and identify legitimate users, which is crucial in network environments, Mr. Nanavati said. If a large percentage of users still require password authentication, then the system's security protections may not be strong enough.

"In the industry, bankers tend to look at false rejection and false acceptance rates, and they tend to ignore the failure to enroll rate, which can differ between vendors," Mr. Nanavati said.

But the systems have improved considerably in two years, he said, and as their accuracy has gone up, the size and cost of the units has come down.

Sales of biometric hardware devices this year nearly doubled from last year, to $110 million, according to International Biometric Group. In 2003, $594 million will be spent on biometric hardware, the group estimated.

"It is helpful to sort the wheat from the chaff in the biometric industry," said Zachary Tumin, executive director of the Financial Services Technology Consortium. "It's terribly important to get this right."


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