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Biometrics in the Workplace

September 13th, 2004

With recent events in mind, employees are demanding that companies around the world look at new security measures to protect them and the companies themselves. In fact, according to a recent Harris Interactive survey, conducted for Privacy & American Business, a majority of employees feel that their employers should be strengthening ID procedures for entering premises and accessing computer systems, as well as doing more detailed background checks on job applicants.

In addition, thirty-five percent felt that their employer should do more detailed background checks on current employees. One such technology, which will aide companies and employers with these tasks, is biometrics.

What is biometrics?

Let´s start with the basics. What is biometrics? Well, in simple terms, it is a type of personal identification that utilizes a unique physiological or behavioral characteristic not shared by any other individual, such as a fingerprint. In other words, only you has this particular characteristic.

There are several different types of biometric technologies: iris eye scan, retinal recognition, facial recognition based on specific characteristics, fingerprint recognition, hand geometry, voice recognition, infrared imaging, keyboard dynamics and handwriting dynamics. All are based on characteristics considered to be unique to the individual, though some are more reliable than others. For instance, it is common knowledge that no one person has the same fingerprint as another. Therefore, this would be a reliable technology. On the other hand, systems that utilize voice recognition or keyboard dynamics (the pattern in which one types words on a keyboard) would be less reliable, since voices can be mimicked and typing styles copied.

For the purpose of this paper, we are going to focus on automated fingerprint recognition. Basically, what that means is that an employer implements a fingerprint-based biometric system and enrolls employees (which only takes a few minutes per person) creating a fingerprint template, which is stored in the database for future verification. Then employees must have their finger “scanned” and template verified in order to gain access to a facility. And there you have it…automated fingerprint recognition systems…in its most simple form.

What does biometrics do?

Now, let´s talk about what kinds of applications biometrics provides, why employers are looking at this technology to secure their facilities and what it means for you, the employee. First of all, biometrics can be used for things such as pre-employment screening, background checks, facility access control, IT network access control, payroll, and time and attendance, just to name a few.

Companies are faced with various threats to their security, such as employee identity theft, vandalism, cheating or what´s often called “buddy punching” (when an employee clocks another employee in or out who is not present at the time) and equipment theft, to name a few. By implementing biometric systems, employers can control who has access to what equipment, prevent fraudulent time and attendance entries and protect their assets from theft.

Additionally, employers face significant costs attributed to replacing lost or stolen building keys or access cards, and correcting time and attendance issues, all of which can be eliminated with the use of a biometric access system. It´s easy to enroll employees, taking only a few minutes, and then the company has an identification database of all employees, and can restrict access to particular parts of the buildings based on specific clearance levels. It´s that easy.

As an employee, biometric systems have advantages for you as well. For instance, instead of having to carry around office keys or access cards, you simply bring your finger with you….which hopefully you do anyway. Best of all, you´ll never misplace your finger, as many people often do with their keys and cards. Additionally, it automates many processes you may currently be doing by hand, such as clocking in and out. This way, you never have to worry about forgetting to clock in, since your fingerprint will do it for you.

A day in the life…

Need an example? Let´s visit with Alison, an employee of XYZ Company, which uses fingerprint-based biometrics throughout its facilities. Alison will start her day entering the building. She simply places her finger on the reader, which then matches her “template” to the one stored in the database. A template is a version of your fingerprint as a complex mathematical equation, or algorithm. This algorithm cannot recreate your fingerprint. Once a mathematical equation, always a mathematical equation.

Sorry for the slight diversion….now, back to Alison´s day. Her fingerprint template is verified by the database and she is granted access to the facilities. Additionally, the time and attendance system used in conjunction with the reader has also clocked her in…and so her day begins. Now what? Well, in order to gain access to her company´s network or her computer, her identification must again be verified. This is to prevent those authorized with building but not network access from stealing valuable company information. She places her finger on her keyboard-mounted reader, and once again, her identity is verified. She now has access to her computer and all her company information and can go about her day. This is basically how the beginning of a typical day with biometrics would go. Now that wasn´t so bad, was it?

How safe is it?

You might think employees would resist such a system. However, that´s not necessarily the case. In fact, according to the survey, four out of five employees and managers said they would be willing to have an ID card issues by their employer that would have on it their photo, basic personnel information and a biometric identifier, such as a fingerprint.

But what about your privacy and personal information? How safe is it? Well, rest at ease…your personal information is perfectly secure and, as we mentioned before, your fingerprint cannot be recreated. Biometrics developers have integrated safety measures into their systems to protect you, the employee. For instance, all information is encrypted within the reader, so even if someone did “crack into the system,” they would also have to break the complex code to retrieve any of your personal information…an event which is unlikely to occur.

Still worried, well don´t. There are advanced systems that use smart cards, which will allow you to retain control of your template. Basically, instead of having your template stored in a company database, it´s stored directly on a card, much like a credit card. There is a chip on the card that stores your template, so when you want to gain access to your facility, you present the card then place your finger on the reader. The reader will match your fingerprint to the template stored on the card. This way, you don´t have to worry about who has access to such information as it remains in your control at all times. And, should you lose the card, no one can gain access to the facility using it, since his or her fingerprint won´t match, and no one can access the information stored on the chip, since it´s also encrypted. Either way, you´re covered.

If you´re still not sure about biometrics as a whole and your employers are looking at such solutions to protect their company´s assets, there is one thing you can do. Ask questions. Ask about the system. Ask about the company´s privacy policy. Find out all the information you need in order to feel comfortable. It may feel a bit like big brother in the beginning, but it´s not. This biometrics system can´t tell where you ate lunch or what you had. It can´t spy on you the restroom. It can´t follow you home at night and it can´t her what you say to other employees, whether work related or not. It´s simply a system to help your employers automate processes and protect their assets…and yes, they do consider their employees assets.

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