The future of touchless biometrics

SMART Access & Identity 2023 Access Control & Identity Management, Integrated Solutions

Contactless access and identity technologies have become top of mind recently, but we normally associate contactless with complex technologies like facial or palm recognition. In reality, cards and mobiles are also contactless technologies, as the user does not need to touch a reader or worry about catching anyone else’s germs (or virus).

While we like to talk about the latest technologies like facial biometrics and using your mobile phone as an access credential, the fact is that old-fashioned cards and fobs still hold sway in the real world where money talks louder than technology.

Rob Griggs, MD, Fulcrum Biometrics Southern Africa (Fulcrum Biometrics is an American company started in 2002 and acquired by Fujitsu Frontech in 2020), explains that the ease of use, low-cost of production at massive scale, advanced processors, memory capacities and on board biometric capabilities of smart card systems continue to make them the dominant medium for loyalty, membership, identity, drivers’ licences and financial systems.

“While mobile phones are certainly offering convenience to the end user, at present these are largely augmenting cards with third-party apps rather than replacing them – especially in financial transactions. The banks themselves are highly reluctant to relinquish control over the purchasing power (and associated profits) from the Europay, Mastercard, Visa ‘EMV’ global standard.”

He adds that the investment into smart cards is also intensifying and diversifying. Thales-Gemalto released a smart card for people with impaired vision in 2021, which pairs with their cell phone earpiece to ‘speak’ the transaction data when the card is presented to a POS terminal. While there are multiple ISO/IEC standards for Near Field Communication (NFC), most of the latest contactless cards operate at 13.56 MHz and transfer data at up to 424 Kbits/second over a distance of up to 10 cms. Accessible read/write memory of up to 512 Kb is now available. Such capacities, coupled with powerful on card computer processors and biometrics, make for ever increasing use cases for these devices.

“All of the above factors, plus the estimated 35+ billion smart cards currently in circulation (over two billion NFC cards were shipped in 2021 alone), indicate that this technology is here to stay and will deliver more applications in the future,” says Griggs.

For those with an interest in secure technologies, the Secure technology Alliance is a good resource:

Where does touchless fit in?

It is a natural question to ask after the pandemic (and one we have asked more than once in this publication): are we going to see more touchless (or contactless) biometric technologies out in the business world in the coming year? Apart from many companies adopting fingerprint biometrics for access control and especially time and attendance (T&A) and workforce management, the drive to touchless brings many benefits – even beyond the pandemic. The fact that many miners have worn their fingerprints down beyond recognition will surprise nobody, but palm-vein or facial recognition works well for them – or so we hear.

“It is quite evident that “touchless” was born of the COVID-19 era and there was great enthusiasm for this from end users and indeed OEMs who profited from a strategy to replace contact based systems,” adds Griggs. “Facial recognition technology (FRT) in particular saw a major upswing as a consequence. The cost of these systems paled in comparison to the threat of contamination – in retrospect however, we question the true value and future positioning of such systems.

“Whilst it can be a long and complex topic, in short FRT, if ‘processed’ without the specific consent of the individual, violates both GDPR and POPIA. This flies in the ‘face’ of OEMs who claim accurate recognition from as far as 30 metres away. As the responsible person, as defined under POPIA, you are required to adhere to the provisions of this law. In South Africa, trade unions especially have a negative view of FRT.”

FRT can also have other, unintended outcomes, he notes. Just one such example is that good quality FRT units can easily recognise a face from 5 metres away, even if you are only walking past and glancing towards the camera, with no intention of entering a secured area or registering attendance. Other people standing in close proximity can then easily gain unauthorised access when they hear the door lock release. This characteristic can also be abused by an employee with malicious intent or deceitful obfuscation of T&A; systems.

“At this point in time we believe that security, compliance with privacy laws, price performance and fit for purpose considerations should outweigh ‘touch’ or ‘no-touch’, which are becoming relegated to nice-to-have attributes.”

Integration is key, contact or not

Readers of the Smart Access & Identity Handbook, and its predecessors (the Access & Identity Management Handbook), are no strangers to our long-term focus on the importance of the integration of access and identification solutions with other systems and technologies. This naturally applies whether you are using cards, fobs, as well as contact or contactless biometrics.

As far as Fulcrum is concerned, Griggs says its products all include APIs to allow integration into third party systems. “This means that all of our devices can easily be connected to existing application systems, using industry standard protocols.”

“Additional tools such as our Fulcrum Biometric Framework (FbF), simplify the inclusion of biometrics into any new or existing mobile, desktop or web-based application. With FbF you have everything you need to biometrically link a physical person to their records in your database or application. By choosing to work with the FbF, your time can be focused on perfecting your application or solution’s features, rather than becoming an expert in programming and debugging biometrics, thus alleviating months of specialists’ time and resulting in rapid deployment of biometric solutions.”

Taking this one step further is PortalGuard from BIO-Key. This is a complete Identity and Access Management (IAM) system, supporting multi-factor authentication for Single Sign-on (SSO) as well as advanced password management features. Fulcrum in South Africa has recently been made the exclusive Bio-Key representatives for all new local business (find out more at

Focusing on palm-vein and iris

Fulcrum Biometrics is a subsidiary of global giant Fujitsu, which has the most advanced palm vein technology in the world, states Griggs. “Locally, we offer palm vein and iris recognition systems as our recommendation for highly secure solutions which are no-touch. In addition, we offer a wide range of NFC smart card solutions from AB Circle, Advanced Card Systems and Cardlogix. We are experiencing significant interest from both the private and public sector for highly secure biometric systems and this trend should continue into 2023.”

Expanding on his comments on FRT above, Griggs notes that iris and palm vein recognition technologies share the following important and pertinent characteristics:

• Legality and no-touch hygiene: Iris requires a deliberate close (circa 25 cm) look into the scanner and palm vein must be consciously presented, passing the palm some 5 cm over the scanner. Consequently, neither of these technologies can ‘accidentally’ capture your biometric without your consent. Compare this to other frequently installed biometric modalities.

• Your face is seen everywhere it goes, sophisticated cameras are common place and can identify you from a considerable distance.

• Your voice is readily captured over the telephone.

• Your fingerprints may be left on almost any surface you touch.

• Consent is the primary requirement in privacy regulations around the world, including POPIA in South Africa. Iris and palm vein’s consent based designs make it easier for you to comply with these regulations and avoid legal issues.

• Iris and palm vein’s acknowledgement of your right to choose when you present your biometric, will be seen as more trustworthy by your customers, staff and trade union bodies, making them much more friendly and open to adoption.

• For large numbers of people, or where strict sanitation requirements exist, such as in hospitals and food manufacturing facilities, zero contact, hygienic operation is essential.

• Both technologies share the best performance characteristics of all biometrics – False Acceptance Rate (FAR) and False Rejection Rate (FRR) are lower than any other biometric, affording them unparalleled accuracy.

• Security: Both technologies are more secure than other biometrics because they are never openly exposed. Other biometrics are observable and hence capable of being copied or captured without your knowledge as per above. Both iris and palm vein have live detection and cannot be spoofed.

• Reliability and consistency: Both iris and palm vein patterns remain constant throughout adult life and are highly unlikely to suffer damage. Optical fingerprint readers are prone to errors arising from dirty or damaged fingers, moisture, dust and aging subjects who lose collagen (resulting in poor or no fingerprints being visible to the reader). Multi Spectral Imaging Fingerprint readers solve these problems, however they are comparable in cost to iris and palm vein and require touching the reader lens.

• Palm-vein and iris biometrics are fit for purpose for both logical identification and physical access control in high-security, challenging environmental or hygienic-critical use cases.


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