As the United States struggled to adjust to its dark new reality following the terror attacks of September 2001, one of the first phenomena to rise from the rubble was a booming security-technology market that today remains in runaway expansion mode. But all that activity hasn't yet translated into an effective vision for enhancing public safety, some industry experts say.
Development activity in a raft of security technologies, from biometric sensors and scanning software to electromagnetic systems for detecting virtually any kind of concealed weapon, took off so quickly in the wake of the attacks that even the most determined industry watchers underestimated the sector's growth. In 2001, the International Biometrics Industry Association (Washington) predicted that sales of biometric hardware and software would hit $2 billion annually within 10 years. More recently, industry tracker Acuity Market Intelligence (Boulder, Colo.) bested that forecast when it predicted the biometrics core-technology market would hit $4.6 billion by 2012, up from $644 million this year.
Moreover, Acuity estimated that end-customer identification system solutions would reach a staggering $27 billion in the same time frame.
"We've seen a lot of activity in the security market, ranging from government contracts to commercial building access to fingerprint scanning for PCs," said Wayne Meyer, Blackfin product-marketing manager for Analog Devices Inc. (Norwood, Mass.). "We're seeing forecasts for 60 percent growth over the next five years. That's why there are so many companies getting into the market."
What's missing is a plan, said C. Maxine Most, principal at Acuity Market Intelligence. Biometrics companies are "figuring out how to get into multimillion-dollar government contracts, but there's no vision for the future," Most said. "There's still a huge gap out there, just waiting to be filled."
In developments that could help the system-level vision jell, developers of silicon fingerprint sensors have cut prices and and accelerated the devices' scan times. "The biometric fingerprint sensors that used to cost $50 now cost less than $6," said Jim Burke, vice president of sensor maker AuthenTec Inc. (Melbourne, Fla.). "That's one of the results of applying consumer math to biometrics."
Indeed, manufacturers say that the building-security business can best grow by riding the coattails of the consumer market. AuthenTec, for example, claims that its biggest users of fingerprint sensors are makers of PDAs, followed by PCs. Building-access controls are a distant third.
Moore's Law is helping drive down processor-based sensor pricing. Analog Devices supplies a 400-MHz Blackfin processor, which offers 16-bit DSP performance and 32-bit RISC extensions, for about $5. The devices are being employed in AuthenTec fingerprint sensors that go for less than $10.
AuthenTec's DSP-based system measures the electromagnetic field emitted from the ridges and valleys of the human finger, turns the values into a mathematical expression and stores the expression in a database. Later, the DSP's real value comes into play when the system reads a new fingerprint and tries to match it against those stored previously. Engineers say the goal for such a system is to produce matches in less than 500 milliseconds. Any longer than that is considered too slow for practical use.
Similarly, Veridicom International (San Jose, Calif.) uses a silicon-based capacitive technique on its fingerprint sensors, then incorporates the sensors in a system known as VKI (pronounced "Vicky"), which includes on-board storage capacity of 256 Mbytes to 1 Gbyte for PC network logon applications, file encryption and digital signature capabilities.
Manufacturers say their fingerprint sensors are finding use at airports in employee identification cards that allow access to such safety-critical areas as tarmacs and baggage handling. Backers of the technology say it helps plug the security holes left by simple photo IDs, particularly when such photos aren't updated on a regular basis.
Still, a multitude of applications that had been considered fertile ground for authentication systems have yet to embrace them. Some frequent-flyer programs use biometric authentication, for example, but the systems are not yet applied to air travelers at large. And the notion of a national IC card system, widely discussed shortly after 9/11, hasn't made much headway.
Indeed, experts warn that such cards are not a panacea. The Sept. 11 terrorists, they point out, carried legitimate identification and driver's licenses. "All biometrics can do is tell you that this is the same person who applied for an earlier government document," noted Acuity's Most.
System solutions on the way
Hence the need for further systemwide approaches to catch terrorists and other lawbreakers who might otherwise elude detection.
The Energy Department's Battelle Memorial Institute's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), for one, has developed millimeter-wave technology that could offer an alternative to conventional metal detectors and X-ray scanners. The system, which is being developed as a commercial product by SafeView Inc. (Menlo Park, Calif.), uses holographic imaging.
The technique employs an array of antennas that transmit and receive an electromagnetic wave with a wavelength ranging from 1 to 10 millimeters. By moving the array around the subject, the device creates a three-dimensional image that sees through clothing and can detect such items as nonmetallic knives, plastic-based flare guns and other items that could be used as weapons. The original PNNL design used eight DSPs from Analog Devices to yield 1 Gflops of computing performance. Licensees are developing proprietary hardware configurations based on the lab's concept.
"There are many threats out there, not just handguns, that can be used in very volatile situations," noted Doug McMakin, staff engineer and co-developer of PNNL's millimeter-wave technology. "This system is designed to address those threats."
Indeed, McMakin pointed out that the Sept. 11 terrorists had smuggled nonmetallic knives and box cutters past airport security.
Critics of approaches like the one developed at PNNL cite privacy-invasion concerns, since the technique can yield a holographic image of a subject's body. But McMakin said the researchers have dealt with that problem by devising a privacy algorithm "that can handle the threats and yet remove human features" from the scanned images.
PNNL representatives said the millimeter-wave device has been licensed to Intellifit Corp. (Philadelphia), which manufactures precise measuring systems for the apparel industry. Employed in that application, the system can take 3-D body measurements without the need for subjects to remove their clothing.
The lab has also developed an acoustic device that could help transportation and immigration officials detect contraband within sealed containers or bulk solids. The device works like a common "fish finder," bouncing an acoustic wave off a material and then examining the echo.
After using a piezoelectric transducer to generate the wave, the so-called acoustic inspection device employs a receiver board to "catch" the echo, then converts it to a digital signal using an A/D converter and sends it to a PDA for examination. By storing acoustic signatures in a file aboard the PDA, the system can compare the acoustic signature of the contents against the signatures of known materials. The $20,000 device is about the size of a cordless hand drill.
A multidisciplinary team from PNNL; Mehls, Griffin & Bartek Ltd.; and International Engineering and Manufacturing has transferred the technology to the commercial market and has sold it to government agencies inside and outside the United States.
Such developments could help coalesce the unified security strategy that Acuity's Most is still waiting to see. When it comes together, component sales could take off.
"Vision drives markets," Most said. "People will start moving toward a vision if it makes sense."