A thin line between success and failure

August 2013 Access Control & Identity Management

The most common comment I hear when discussing fingerprint biometrics is that it does not work. Sometimes it is phrased as a question, sometimes as a statement, but the sentiment is always the same – fingerprint biometrics is ‘iffy’ at best.

There is some merit to that point of view. There are too many substandard systems available on the market that have tarnished the image of fingerprint biometrics. There is a marked similarity with what has happened in the CCTV industry: people with minimal knowledge and resources flinging together a product touted on pricing and not quality.

I know of manufacturers that work out of their basements and garages at home or in small factories. These companies buy components from different vendors, writing quick-fire user interfaces and then, by hook or by crook, come up with a product that looks like the real deal. End users purchase these products but ultimately become disillusioned with the whole biometric industry, not merely the product.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not slamming companies who start out in basements or garages – two of the top companies in the world, HP and Apple, started in a garage. But there is a difference – HP and Apple used science, innovation and a product that works as their founding principles. Neither of these companies was in it for a quick buck, only to disappear into oblivion within a year or two. They were in it for the long haul and have since set the bar for innovation, research, development and quality. They keep on coming up with new ideas, new technologies and new ways to use their product.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a very large portion of the electronic security market as there are only a few innovators, a few with the resources to constantly research and develop, a few with vision.

The quality of the mathematical algorithm forms the heart of any biometric device and influences how successful a biometric device will be. But that only pertains to the quality of the fingerprint template, read speed and Equal Error Rate. The actual construction of the device is also of great importance: how well the mainboard is put together, the safeguards placed on the mainboard, the functionality of the device, the quality of the fingerprint sensor, the quality of the lens on the fingerprint sensor, the construction of the outer casing and IP ratings. These are all factors that contribute to the success or failure of the device.

There are also many other factors that contribute towards the success or failure of biometric devices when they are deployed as a system, whether access control or time & attendance (T&A), or as a combination of the two.


The largest contributors to the failure of biometric devices are power supply and surge protection. Biometric devices are sensitive electronic devices that have very specific power requirements.

* Voltage drop because the cable runs from the PSU to the device is too long, placing strain on the components inside the device and which will, over time, lead to component failure.

* Inadequate electrical supply because the PSU is not of the required rating; once again inevitably resulting in component failure.

* Incorrect cabling being used to transfer electrical supply and not taking into account the voltage drop because the AWG guidelines are not followed.

An immutable rule in any electronic installation is ‘protect your circuits’. For some reason or other, installers do not install surge protection on either the electrical supply line or electrical supply lines to locks, fly-back diodes on any type of electrical lock (which causes EMF on the mainboard and PSU, resulting in main board failure) or TCP/IP data lines. This is a failure of the installer to properly safeguard the circuit

Physical installation

Poor workmanship is a fact in any industry but it seems to be a particular bugbear in the electronic security industry:

* Devices are mounted at incorrect heights to take full advantage of the fingerprint sensor, thereby giving many false negatives.

* Devices are mounted close to three-phase DB boards, HT cable or near generators and heavy electrical machinery. This means that they have to deal with massive amounts of EMI in the process, which inevitably results in mainboard or component failure.

* Devices are mounted outside or in harsh environments without protection. The exception is a device specifically designed and manufactured for that purpose.

* Joints aren’t soldered and protected, leading to oxidisation and failure of either the device or third-party devices such as locks.

* Cabling is exposed, not labelled and not run to any kind of standard or specification.

* Incorrect cabling is used for the wrong application, for instance, Cat 5 cable used to power and control a magnetic lock.

* Cabling is installed with 90° bends or are coiled.

* No external relays have been used to make the access point a secure access point.

* Electrical issues such as discussed above.

* Trunking, conduit and proper junction boxes are not used.

Premise cabling and network infrastructure

Poor networks are a reality. Substandard cable that does not comply with the TIA/EIA 568 standard is in abundance. What installers do not realise is that copper cladded aluminium cable is not suitable for anything other than a small home network. Proper Cat 5e or Cat 6 cabling is required to run biometric devices as a system, for either access control or T&A, or a combination. Without proper cabling the data signal is impeded, resulting in packet loss and interminable loss of communication between the device and the head-end control equipment.

Other scenarios are where data cabling is not installed in accordance with ISO IEC 11801, termination points are poorly crimped and situated, there are no consolidation points with patch panels, switching gear or wall boxes. I have even seen numerous installations where the data cable run exceeds 140 m because somehow TCP/IP based security devices don’t have to comply with the same standards as that of an information network consisting of PCs, server and printers. Ironically, the question is asked: “Why does it not communicate?”

Another factor that is often overlooked is the quality of the switching and routing gear. Why would you use a switch that is manufactured for the SOHO market on an access control system? The mind boggles. And even when gear that is manufactured for this purpose is used, the management of the gear is insufficient or lacking. Ports are not opened, VPNs are not properly routed . . .

Software and head-end equipment

The software management suite for a biometric system is an integral part of how the biometric device functions. Although many devices have built-in intelligence, that intelligence is limited to the immediate function of the device and is not propagated throughout the whole system. This is where the software suite comes in: it manages templates and the access control function of the system, and keeps a database of events for later scrutiny. If the software is poorly written or is unstable, the whole system will function poorly and although the individual devices may be brilliant, the performance of the device bound as a system will disappoint.

Often the IT hardware will be lacking in capability or hopelessly over-specified. The one results in slow or non-performance of the system and the other in a hopeless waste of money. The OS of the IT hardware, anti-virus programs and software firewalls often have an influence on the performance of the system. The installer must ensure that the IT hardware complies with the minimum specification required by the software suite, without going overboard, and that the necessary steps are followed for the software suite to be able to work with the OS and other software involved. The hardware must preferably be a single purpose machine.

Fingerprint enrolment

The second biggest failure of any biometric system is the enrolment of the template when the system is being commissioned. This is a major issue, as on numerous occasions I have found that users complain that the biometric system does not function properly, only to find that users have been inadequately enrolled. If you have a bad enrolment, you have a bad system. All other factors in play can be according to standard, or even exceed it, but the biometric system will function poorly causing frustration and disillusionment with users.

In summary, the line between a successful system and a failed system is a thin one. It comes down to the right choice of device, with accompanying software suite, proper installation and a network that will be able to enhance and not impede the system.

For more information contact Virdi Distribution, 086 118 4734, chris@virditech.co.za, www.virditech.co.za


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