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Careers in Biometrics

Can fingerprints identify your future?

By John Edwards

Being fingerprinted used to be the first step on a trip to jail. Now it can mean access to a building or office, a computer or an ATM transaction.

Biometrics—user authentication based on a fingerprint, voice pattern, retinal scan or other biological characteristic—is rapidly gaining momentum, leading to a variety of new jobs in related fields. As biometrics hits the mainstream, the technology is proving itself as both a convenient and secure method of user identification. Organizations using biometric identification include financial institutions, retailers, governments and security companies. A growing number of people are also adding biometric readers to their laptop computers and other theft-prone mobile devices to provide simple, trouble-free system access.

Photo credit: BotheredByBees

Photo credit: BotheredByBees

Jane Snipes, founder and an executive recruiter at Northstar Recruiting, a Florence S.C.-based recruitment firm that specializes in biometrics careers, notes that biometrics technology has existed for a lot longer than many people think. "It's been around for 30 years," she says. "The government has been using this for decades."

Biometrics identification is inherently more secure than passwords and most other common-used identification methods, says Vance Bjorn, co-founder and chief technology officer of DigitalPersona, a biometrics systems developer and manufacturer located in Redwood City, Calif. "A password, a smart card or your Visa card—anybody could take and use those," he says. "But biometrics allows the system to know actually who's using it, with certainty, and that has a lot of consumer applications."

In fact, while biometrics is often associated in the public mind with spooky facilities operated by giant, faceless government and business entities, the technology's brightest potential appears to lie with everyday users. "We do see a lot of movement on the consumer side," Bjorn says. "That's a market that we think is most ripe with potential."

Bjorn feels that a growing awareness of identify fraud—people stealing social security numbers to fraudulently obtain credit—is helping drive the biometric industry forward. "A fingerprint is probably the most convenient way to resolve those types of issues, he says. "You prove that you are the actual physical person who is associated with that account."

Bjorn notes that fingerprints have a natural association with identity protection and are widely recognized as a reliable means of identification. "I could show my 90-year-old grandma a fingerprint sensor and she would immediately know what it is," Bjorn says. "It's something that people recognize—they've seen it in James Bond movies."

Where the Jobs Are

Since biometrics involves many different types of sciences and technologies—everything from optics to algorithms—jobs are available to grads in just about every IT-related field, and in many other technical areas as well.

DigitalPersona's staff, for example, includes system software engineers, security architects, device driver specialists, artificial intelligence experts, computer vision engineers and mathematicians, among many others. "I absolutely see this market as having lots of opportunities," Bjorn says. For her part, Snipes sees a growing demand for people with both technical knowledge and business skills. "There are a lot of jobs in sales support, marketing, product management [and] product development," she says. Snipes also believes that there will be "a huge need" down the road for hardware technicians who are able to diagnose and troubleshoot biometrics readers in the field. "Just as you have technicians that go out and fix ATMs, you're going to have to have technicians who know how to fix fingerprint readers."

The Wild West

Bjorn, like many other biometrics industry leaders, views the market as one in which there is no established hierarchy and where just about anyone with a good idea can make a significant impact. "I think this is a field that I would still characterize somewhat as the 'Wild West,'" he says. "The leaders have not fully emerged; there is still a lot of churning, a tremendous amount of competition coming on board."

This means that even an engineering student can lay the groundwork for a successful biometrics startup. Bjorn, for example, began planning his move into the field in the early 1990s while an undergrad at the California Institute of Technology, specializing in computational and neural systems. "Which is kind of the nexus of brain sciences and computer science and electrical engineering," he explains.

Bjorn says that he and "the guy who lived in the dorm next to me" worked jointly on a class project in pattern recognition. "We were supposed to turn some of the concepts presented in the class into a project and we chose fingerprint recognition to work on together," he recalls.

The project turned out to be the seed for his future business. "I wouldn't say that that specific technology is the one that's used in our products today, but it certainly was the catalyst," he says. The project, which received an A, attracted the attention of several Caltech professors who urged Bjorn and his friend to consider commercializing his concept. "I ultimately became an intern at Intel that summer, where they wanted me to adapt some of this technology," he says. "Again, not exactly the same technology that we use today, but adapt some of that to research they were working on at Intel."

After his experience at Intel, Bjorn and his friend started to seriously consider their technology's commercialization prospects. "We started to develop the prototypes and other things necessary," he says. The duo founded the company, which now includes Microsoft among its customers, in 1996.

Today, DigitalPersona technology is widely used worldwide. "We have entire banking systems in Mexico where over a million people a day put their finger down in the system to access their bank records," Bjorn says. "We also have healthcare systems where there are hundreds of thousands of drug-dispensing medical cabinets in pharmacies."

Bjorn says that once he got started in biometrics he never looked back. "It's an exciting area for a graduating engineer to look into because, if you bet right, you could be in a very high growth area with a lot of financial rewards," he says. Snipes agrees. She notes that biometrics has a hold on the public—as well as on the people who work in the field—like few other technologies. "It's not rocket science, but it is very cool," she says. "So for those people who like to be on the cutting edge, this is certainly a good place to be.

John Edwards is a technology writer based near Phoenix. His work has appeared in CIO Magazine, Wireless Week, Mobile Computing, IEEE Computer and numerous other publications.

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