Hotel Online  Special Report

Biometrics Lend a Hand to Hotel Security
Terence Ronson, February 2002

Since September 11, there has been heightened security awareness especially in public places like Hotels and airports. In Hotels, this is obvious by the number of wired-up Security Guards you can see deployed all over the place, and picture ID being required in addition to the mandatory credit card upon check-in.

But I fear it’s all going to be for nout - a waste of time and money performing all this extra work, unless you exercise the same if not higher level of checking for people who access back-of-house areas such as employees and contractors. The goal of access control must be to control where people can and cannot go. One such technology that has been waiting in the wings and (sadly) hoping for such an event to prove itself - is Biometrics. 

Biometrics is a term used to describe a measurement of uniqueness of a human being such as voice, hand print or facial characteristics. Some of you may have seen mock-examples of such devices in James Bond movies, Mission Impossible and Star Trek.  

Card-based access systems have been around for a long while and control access using authorized pieces of plastic, but not who is in actual possession of that card. Systems using PINs (personal identification numbers) such as ATM’s only require that an individual knows a specific number to gain entry. Who actually enters that code - can not be determined. Biometrics devices on the other hand (no pun intended), verify who a person is by what they are, whether it’s their hand, eye, fingerprint or voice.

In fact, so hot has this subject now become, that the New York Times ran a story on December 17th 2001 citing that after September 11, many of the companies producing this type of technology have seen a rise in sales enquiries, and several have had their Market Cap raised beyond their wildest expectations. Talk about making good out of bad times….

But, whilst I’d love to talk about voice or retina recognition, I expect Hotels would be more inclined to be interested in fingerprint or hand-recognition access control systems – probably because of the cost and relative simplicity in which they can be implement into an existing operation.

For example, when captured, a fingerprint image is converted into a digital form by extracting a set of unique characteristics.  The abstract data taken from the recording is then encrypted and stored in the database as a template, to be later used as a reference for comparison purposes.

Users are authenticated by extracting and comparing information derived from unique arches, loops, markings, and ridges of a fingerprint.  This set of information called minutia, is a mathematical representation captured as a series of numbers and relationships of the whorls and ridges of the fingerprint.  No actual image of the fingerprint is stored, ensuring privacy and security, the prime concern of users.

But controlling high security areas or places where only certain staff members should access is only half of the game. We are now seeing increased discussions amongst government agencies and security conscious organisations like airports for more bio-metric based controls to be implemented on the movement of people from country to country.

For a long while the PRC has tracked the movement of its citizens by capturing a copy of their ID or travel document upon check-in and then entering the details into a PSB (Public Safety Bureau) terminal located behind the hotel reception desk. The data is then uploaded once a day to some central body for onward processing – we think. Whilst this in theory allows the government to know where people are at a certain time, other countries like the US and UK would most likely balk at the idea based on civil liberties.

But with a growing number of terrorists and unscrupulous people at large, using hotels as temporary hideouts or resting places, it seems to me that the need for this and an even more sophisticated type of tracking system will be developed. Attitudes must change after 9-11. Not that we’re at the point of having microchips inserted under our skin at birth as illustrated in the 1984 cyberpunk novel “Neuromancer” or the 1999 blockbuster “The Matrix”,  but something akin to this will happen – whether we like it or not. One such company who is heavily betting on this new technology is Applied Digital Solutions (Nasdaq: ADSX) out of the US and they are talking about a chip (VeriChip™) about the size of a grain of rice being injected into your body providing information to anyone with the right kind of scanning equipment. .After all, we’ve been doing this with household pets, and the younger generation is into body piercing, so why not?

As we go to print, Governments are considering replacing conventional passports with ones that contain a form of bio-metric identifier using a heavily encrypted micro-chip. Most likely the chip will contain a fingerprint, or perhaps a DNA signature. The latter has now become an everyday occurrence in crime fighting not specifically to identify a guilty party, but also to exonerate the innocent. 

Passports are smarter today by being machine readable and they carry a 2-line series of digits on the picture page most often with your name and birth-date plus country of citizenship in between some character spacing.

But Passports can be easily faked (as we hear only too often) and in reality, are not unique forms of identification. Each time you get a new one, the number changes and for the frequent traveler this is a pain having to remember a new number when you fill up visa entry forms etc. It seems to me that it would be better if we carried special ID cards with smart chips that have some form of bio-metric information. Theoretically, this should eliminate the need for visa form filling and rubber stamps in our passport. It should speed up entry and egress from a country, and more importantly, when we check in to hotels, rent a car or do anything where we need a full proof ID, the card will help us to do just that.

What remains is for the developers to sit down with the government organisations (both secret and public) and the civil liberties people to hammer out what is best for everyone. What we do know for sure is; This technology is no longer science fiction. 

This article first appeared in HOTEL ASIA PACIFIC

Terence Ronson 
+852 946 80848
[email protected]
Terence started his career as a Chef, and acquired his wealth of practical experience and knowledge whilst holding various management positions with   Hilton International in Asia and at several prestigious establishments in the U.K. After developing a personal interest in computers and technology some twenty years ago, Terence has turned his attention on to this exciting and rapidly evolving aspect of the business, working with several  prominent IT related companies in the hospitality industry, applying their products and services so as to streamline businesses, improve profitability, and the guest experience.

Also See Shanghai Surprise: Update on Hotel Technology at Grand Hyatt Shanghai and The St. Regis Shanghai / Jan 2002 
Seemed Like a Tall Order: How to “Hot Wire” the World’s Tallest Hotel and Make It One of the Most Technologically Advanced On the Planet / Terence Ronson /Jan 2001 
Yielding to Market Forces - Terence Ronson Asks MICROS and IDeaS, Two Leading Providers of Hotel Yield Management Systems, Just What They Can Do for a Hotel’s Bottom Line / Terence Ronson / Aug 2001 

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