In the Beginning: Fingerprint Biometrics in Mobile ID

A figure taken from the patent for the first mobile biometric device implemented by a customer (SQUID from Digital Biometrics).

Now that the iPhone 5S and Touch ID have been released, I thought it would be fun to take you down memory lane regarding how mobile biometric (namely fingerprint) devices began to see success with key milestones along the way.

It began in 1995 with a company known as Digital Biometrics, Inc. (DBI) commissioned by Harris Corporation to develop and deliver a mobile device called the Squad Car Identification Device (SQUID). SQUID was to be used in police cars in connection with a pilot program at the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) called NCIC2000. NCIC2000 included an Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) from Printrak International, Inc. that would identify whether a person-of-interest had any outstanding felony wants and warrants using two fingerprints.  Some of the first installations of the SQUID took place at the New Jersey State Police. The SQUID was fairly large and heavy (not really a ‘handheld device’ per se), had a built in camera, and required tethering to a docking station (cradle) to transfer data to the computer for processing. However, the SQUID certainly deserves the title of one of the first (if not the first) mobile fingerprint biometric device deployed by a customer.  

In 1997 AuthenTec, a business unit within Harris Corporation at the time, built a handheld wireless device with capacitive fingerprint capture on board. A few functioning prototypes were built and demonstrated using a 2 Mbps wireless Ethernet connection. Very simply two fingerprints were captured, transmitted wirelessly, searched against a database and the red light / green light result returned to the device to notify the operator if there was a match or no match.

While at AuthenTec, I can remember sitting at lunch with some of the smartest guys in the industry when they got bored and calculated how much rain was falling on a field nearby as we watched it pour down (including force, speed, accumulation, etc.). I had recently left college and studied physics and math and I could barely keep up with most of the fast moving calculations. This is just one example of a boring moment for the smart guys that invented the sensing technology that served as the basis for what is in the iPhone today. The intelligence of these guys even on their time off was amazing to me. Another example of boring, nobody enjoyed talking to the attorneys so they frequently sent me to spend the relentless hours helping with the patents and partnership agreements…what fun!

Siemens (Infineon) showed off the first fully functioning prototype of a GSM phone with fingerprint sensor in 1999 at CeBIT.

In 1998 the industry was really lit afire with regards to mobile activities. I remember at CardTech/SecureTech multiple capacitive fingerprint reader companies had fully functioning mock-ups of laptop computers with fingerprint sensors cut into the plastic chassis including Siemens (Infineon), AuthenTec and Thomson-CSF.  And believe it or not, also in 1998 and way ahead of its time, Lund University in Sweden actually prototyped the first wireless Bluetooth personal key fob called the Paymate with built-in smart card reader and fingerprint reader from Thomson-CSF. Just one year later in 1999, the first fully functioning GSM phone with a fingerprint sensor was shown off by Siemens at CeBIT.  You could logon (wake up / lock phone) and the phone stored 60 fingerprint records (not sure you want up to 59 other people using your personal mobile phone but the storage capacity was impressive for the day).  

The Cross Match MV5 was a lightweight, portable mobile biometric device.

Also in 1999, in the area of government applications, Cross Match Technologies developed the first large production, field-ready mobile fingerprint device that was truly small and lightweight, the MV5. The MV5 device used standard battery packs from electric cordless power tools. First deployed with New Jersey State Police and the IDENT program at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), now US-VISIT, the MV5 included one-hand operation and enough power for an entire shift.  The simple red light / green light approach was used and in the first model a cradle was required to download the data into the computer (a couple of years later a wireless version was launched).

On a personal note, I remember camping out on K Street in Washington DC to lab-test the image and construction quality of the various Cross Match devices in order to win the contract. At the time, the Cross Match devices were milled aluminum bricks with optics that could not move so they stayed aligned and calibrated. Upon being seriously prompted by INS leadership, I stepped up on a workman’s ladder and dropped the units to the floor repeatedly and then ran a search in IDENT without any issues…we had only made a handful of the mobile devices so I was freaking out a bit!  At the INS, Cross Match helped Raytheon develop the award-winning Mobile IDENT program that included watertight cases with laptops, fingerprint reader and camera included. These kits were issued not only to vehicles, but also to officers on horseback and riding ATVs along the border facilitating real-time checks against the IDENT fingerprint system provided by Cogent Systems (now 3M Cogent).

HP released the first PDA device with a built in fingerprint reader in the fall of 2002, the iPAQ h5450.

In 2000, on the commercial side, Sagem released the first dual-band GSM production phone with a fingerprint reader built in, the MC 959 ID.  In 2001 at CeBIT, Fingerprint Cards demoed the first PDA with a fingerprint reader using a Handspring Visor and Springboard expansion module. In 2002, a production PDA with a built-in Atmel fingerprint reader would arrive with the HP iPAQ h5450. I remember that a lot of companies and people in the biometrics industry (of course) went out and bought one right away to mark the milestone!

Fast-forward 10 years to 2012 and Apple acquires AuthenTec to launch the iPhone 5S this year with the AuthenTec technology inside. With millions of iPhone 5S devices delivered in a single weekend, the biometric industry has come a long way since November 1968 when one of the earliest patents was filed for an identification device using fingerprints (patent number US3619060 A).

Over these many years fingerprint devices continuously became a single diminutive feature that conformed to the overall product design, as opposed to a main attraction that frequently impacted and dictated the product design. This will likely continue in the future. For example, as transparent thin film technologies are perfected, there is no reason why the fingerprint device cannot simply become a part of the display technology. Or, maybe the technology will simply take a photograph of the finger surface before it even gets to the touchscreen so the device is unlocked and ready to go. Regardless, full featured and certified liveness detection technologies need to be built in to help instill confidence and deflect the naysayers.