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Market leader in biometrics

If the Internet security industry embraces biometrics (which they appear to be doing), who will emerge as the market leader by the beginning of next year, assuming it will happen that quickly?

That's a very good question. I do hope you realize that you're asking me to predict the future, and that's notoriously hard. With that in mind, here are my opinions.

I don't believe that a market leader in biometrics will emerge as early as next year. First of all, biometrics is a wide field. There are fingerprints, voice prints, hand geometry, iris prints and even more esoteric technologies, like typing patterns. There is no clear superior technology here and no company that does even two of them.

Most interesting biometrics require hardware that most users don't have. Thus there is a huge barrier to entry. Cheap (below $100) fingerprint units are starting to appear, but there's no compelling reason for a consumer to buy them yet.

Lastly, there are huge business issues surrounding the use of biometrics. One of the promising companies is promoting their cheap fingerprint units as a way of authenticating Internet commerce. However, this is precisely the sort of use that biometrics are worst for. The reason for this is that the biometric data has to be stored and transmitted. If hackers can steal credit card numbers, they can steal fingerprint data. As a consumer, I'm concerned but not alarmed by this. The credit card companies take all liability. I know that if their costs go up, it ultimately means higher prices for me, but I am not personally liable for thousands of dollars of charges from my stolen number. What happens if a Russian hacker steals both my credit card number and my biometric data? Doesn't that shift the liability back to me, where I now have to prove it wasn't me who bought those things?

This is the real reason why I don't think there's going to be a market leader by next year. I would never myself buy a biometric device because I know that it represents a shift of liability from merchants to me. I can't blame the merchants; I'd want to do that if I were them, too. But I'm not going to play along. And I recommend that you not play along, either. The security industry might embrace biometrics, but there is no compelling reason for consumers to do so. There are no compelling reasons for consumers to adopt biometrics because the business and financial systems (not the technical ones) are not yet set up to make it compelling.

This was last published in May 2001

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