In the high-tech heist film "Sneakers," a team of computer hackers attempts to physically break into the secured secret headquarters of a criminal organization. Among the various barriers protecting the facility, the team encounters a voice-recognition device that responds to the phrase, "My voice is my passport; verify me."

Biometric technologies confirm an individual's identity by comparing patterns of physical or behavioral characteristics against those enrolled and stored in computer records. Hollywood films and sci-fi novels are rife with futuristic scenarios in which biometrics are used to grant access to secured facilities or information, to monitor personal activity, to control machines or to identify individuals.

In the real world, however, biometric technologies are more advanced than most movie-goers probably realize-and the future is, if not now, then right around the corner. In fact, biometrics are used in a broad range of applications, from securing airports and international borders to protecting banking and securities transactions.

Today, biometric "capture devices" of various types scan and analyze patterns of the face, fingerprint, hand, iris, skin and voice. The mathematical expression of the iris is the most detailed of any biometric technology, according to the International Biometric Industry Association of Washington. Dermal surface analysis is one of the latest biometric technologies, while the tried-and-true fingerprint biometric is the oldest and most relied upon. Face and hand imaging devices scan the three-dimensional geometry of the physical body, while voice recognition is the binary representation of the human voice and vocal tract.

Proponents of biometrics argue that this technology will play an ever-increasing role in safeguarding countries, enterprises, information and individuals. In an age of terrorism and identity theft, security experts in a variety of industries, including financial services, are evaluating the merits of biometrics as part of a comprehensive, integrated authentication approach to security.

In the past several years, an authentication protocol called "two-factor," or "strong" authentication, has been gaining ground as a tool for establishing identity and privileges. Authentication systems generally require individuals to present, as proof of identity, something they know (such as a password or PIN), something they have (such as a token or card), or-with the development of biometric technologies-something they are (such as a fingerprint, iris or voice).

With two-factor authentication, individuals seeking access provide two of these three factors, such as an ID card and a fingerprint, or a voice sample and an account number. Proponents of this approach argue that two-factor authentication could significantly reduce the incidence of online identity theft and fraud. And since biometrics are unique (no two fingerprints are alike, and even facial geometry remains relatively stable throughout one's lifetime), combining a biometric with another factor is a powerful tool and appropriate in many different situations.

Biometrics play a key role as part of a two-factor authentication system protecting critical areas at DST Systems' data center. At the high-security facility, biometric devices identify associates authorized to access restricted areas of the facility. In addition to showing an access badge, authorized associates place a finger on a scanner, and the system verifies the individual fingerprint (including pulse and temperature to ensure the fingerprint is actually from a living finger).

DST also has offered biometric authentication for consumer use since 2003. Voice recognition software integrated with DST's mutual fund and retirement recordkeeping platforms enables DST's clients' shareholders and plan participants to use their voices to access account information. Convenient and unobtrusive, voice authentication enables callers to speak their tax ID or account number (combining identification and two-factor authentication in one step), without being required to provide a PIN or password, which can be stolen, guessed or forgotten.

Voice verification technology relies on the unique matrix of numbers that represents the characteristics of a caller's voice and vocal tract. The technology measures behavioral characteristics as well as physical characteristics, so even a voice that is hoarse or nasal with a cold can be identified. This provides a great convenience not only for consumers struggling to remember numerous PINs and passwords, but potential cost savings for DST's clients, which typically realize shorter call duration and increased automation rates, not to mention brand reinforcement and reductions in PIN re-set and other administrative calls.

The future of biometrics captures the imagination, and there is no doubt that security experts, governments and businesses-as well as Hollywood producers-will continue to seek out new frontiers for this technology. In the meantime, business and consumer acceptance will continue to rise as cutting-edge applications become more commonplace, and phrases like, "My voice is my passport; verify me," move off the silver screen and into the vernacular of our time.

(c) 2006 Money Management Executive and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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