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Innovation Feature

The future of biometrics in the palm of your hand

A KACST team is working on a system that identifies people based on the veins in the palms, offering a hack-proof biometrics platform to Saudi organizations

28 November 2019

In recent years, technological advances have enabled the spread of biometric identification systems throughout the world. Used in our phones, offices, and passports, biometrics provide a simple, reliable, and robust way to verify the identity of a person based on the uniqueness of their bodies.

Biometric systems based on fingerprint, facial, or iris recognition are popular. Their widespread adoption, however, has also raised significant concerns about potential to render existing technology unsuitable for high-security applications.

Now, engineers from KACST have adopted a novel approach to biometrics that utilizes the unique pattern of veins within a person’s palms. Creating their system, named Wareed, at the request of potential clients within Saudi Arabia, the team says it offers unbreakable authentication at a time when attempts are increasingly used to cheat existing technology.

While the sensor used for scanning is not a KACST invention, it’s the Wareed platform in which it’s deployed that maximizes its potential as a biometric scanner.  The Wareed team purchased the sensor, and built it into an infrastructure that includes the database, software, encrypted communications links and the hardware itself, creating a full-fledged system. 

“We didn’t develop palm vein technology,” says Yasser Seddiq, senior systems engineer at KACST’s National Center for Communication Systems and Command and Control Technology. “But we’re one of the few teams in the world that have managed to deploy this technology, and we’ve done so for the good of our nation and the good of our community.” He adds that the most significant element of the project is that it has developed the skillset of Saudi researchers and localized specialized knowledge within the kingdom. Seddiq’s team is also one of the few academic teams to develop similar systems, as other organizations offering this technology are normally large corporations.

The key to Wareed’s strength lies in the way that its sensor scans palm veins, says Seddiq. Rather than creating a simple image of the veins, the sensor that powers the Wareed system uses infrared light to measure the levels of deoxidized hemoglobin in the tissues of the hand. This constitutes a unique signature with levels of complexity that current technologies fail to break, making it far more secure than other biometric systems.

“Nowadays, people are managing to cheat fingerprint scanners and facial recognition,” says Seddiq. “But not palm vein technology. So far, there’s no way to do this.”

“Even if someone was to break into a database and steal the vein pattern,” explains Seddiq, “regenerating it exactly in a fake hand, with the same pattern of blood and oxygenation… is not possible. It’s a biologically complicated process.”

Another strength lies in that, unlike facial features, fingerprints, or iris characteristics, palm veins lie hidden underneath the skin.

Seddiq and his colleagues at KACST have taken the third-party sensor and developed it into Wareed: a comprehensive platform that can compare the biological signature within palm veins to a local or remote database, with which it can communicate over an ethernet or WiFi connection. Both the databases and the communication links between individual system components are all protected with AES – the encryption standard that protects global banking and government communications.

The researchers behind Wareed designed the platform with their breadth of potential clients in mind, ensuring that the final product can be easily adapted for a multitude of different use cases. 

The system could be used to provide access to secure areas, or any other scenario where positive identification of a person is required, such as verifying students’ identities before taking an exam.

Wareed is also suitable for use in hospitals or other high-sanitation environments, as it does not require physical contact with the reader in order to make a scan. Currently, locations using fingerprint readers in these environments need to clean the scanners constantly and meticulously to prevent the spread of potential infections. Seddiq says that his team is already in conversations with major hospitals within Saudi Arabia.  “This could be a crucial system for them,” Seddiq says.

For Seddiq, the success in creating Wareed demonstrates the strength of KACST’s researchers and their tenacity in facing challenges head-on. He explains that information or resources available for the project were in short supply. The few other teams around the world working on similar technologies are typically part of huge corporations, which usually don’t make their research publicly accessible. “The challenge was very interesting, and gave us the opportunity to speak to these large enterprises, and to the German company that created the sensor itself,” he adds.

As part of the Saudi Vision 2030, research teams such as Seddiq’s are prioritizing the development of homegrown advances in technology. They are particularly championing research into renewable energy and sustainable technologies to move away from a dependence on oil and towards a knowledge-based economy.

 

“In addition to Wareed’s high value to our clients, we now have a team of young engineers who have acquired the knowledge and experience of dealing with palm vein technology,” Seddiq says.

Tthe feedback from potential clients, says Seddiq, has been encouraging. The team has completed the initial development of the system, and is in the process of finalizing it to meet industry regulations and suitability for production. “Right now, we’re at the stage where we could work with a client to have the system up and running in as little as eight weeks,” he says.

The KACST team is also establishing a company to commercialize their invention. “Establishing start-ups and companies to carry on this work is of the highest importance,” says Seddiq. It’s not just the system itself; it’s establishing an ongoing company that can sustain itself, and work towards enhancing Saudi Arabia’s knowledge-based economy.”