top of page

South Africa Fertile Soil for Fingerprint Biometrics

In recent years, especially the last two years, there has been a significant growth in the use of Biometrics technologies for various applications in South Africa. Biometrics is used – contrary to popular belief – not only for physical Access Control but also anything from information management, access to information control, Time and Attendance right down to Point of Sale systems.

Don’t get me wrong; Biometrics is not a sudden phenomenon that appeared overnight. In its basest form it has been with us since the late 70’s when the first hand scanners were introduced to replace manual card clocking systems, so it has been around for some time

The adoption of Biometrics into mainstream use has thus been a long and slow road and this could be explained by the slow development of Biometric devices and the algorithms that forms the heart of any Biometric system. Of course the cost factor also played a major role as the earliest Biometric systems were extremely costly and companies baulked at the prospect of laying out CAPEX to invest in such a system especially since it was a new and unproven technology. It is always a question of return on investment

Since the mid-90’s however Biometrics have gathered momentum and this is partly due to developments in technology as well as manufacturers seeing advantage in investing in R&D even if the commercial market did not hold the same view. So it came about that Governments were the first major adopters of Biometrics for use in immigration & passport control as well as Law Enforcement and Military applications.

Not being a tech-savvy nation, the introduction of new technology and devices are largely met with skepticism as we are extremely conservative about what products and technologies are used where. System Integrators, Installers and End-Users tend to install what they know and with what they are comfortable with. IP based technologies – and Biometrics in particular – is one of those that the market was slow to warm up to

Recently however we have seen a spike in demand for use of Biometrics in the commercial space. The Time & Attendance market largely drove this, as fraud and corruption is rife within HR departments and with conventional card based systems “buddy” clocking is a very real and costly reality. Enter Biometrics – it is impossible to give your friend your finger to clock into work on your behalf. Other factors such as lost, stolen or forgotten cards, extra functionality within the devices and integrated solutions also played a major part in the increased demand for Biometrics

Also in the security sector the need for more secure devices became apparent for the same reasons. As access cards get passed between people, there is no control regarding who gains access and a very cumbersome management process had to be designed, implemented, followed and audited to prevent persons gaining access to the premises or restricted areas. Biometrics proved to be the solution for the same reason that Time & Attendance migrated. No more lost cards, no more passing cards between people. This goes to the core of Biometrics. There are only two reasons to deploy Biometric based systems – convenience and security.

Suddenly the South African market has adopted Biometrics as a technology with startling speed and almost every Time & Attendance system, access control system or information control system uses Biometrics in some way, shape or form. There are however a few pitfalls in this sudden surge in Biometrics’ popularity.

The first and foremost of this is that South Africa has always been a very cost conscious market – not as bad as other countries in Africa – but still the decision makers require that the system uses the least amount of capital for the maximum amount of return. This opens the door for vendors that manufactures and supplies sub-standard devices …but it is cheap – which is attractive to the end-user. The end-user will only find out later that the system he bought and paid for looks good on paper but operates poorly when mounted on the wall. Spares, repairs, technical back-up service, the security and durability of the system is not at the forefront of the end-users mind when purchasing the system but it sure becomes and issue after the installation has been completed and paid for.

The second pitfall is that very few people are educated in how a biometric system operates. They are unaware of the different sub-categories of technology under Fingerprint Biometrics. They do not know that fingerprint Biometrics can be subverted and what technology needs to be incorporated into the reader to prevent the possibility of the Biometric system being compromised. This pitfall goes very much hand-in-hand with the pitfall mentioned above

The third pitfall is that sales staff does not know the Features, Functions and Benefits of what the system can and cannot do. This leads to end-users making incorrect decisions based on what they want from the system and their choice of system. Often it would be found that a system was sold to the end-user to do X but can only manage to do Y

The last pitfall is something I have dubbed “The Hollywood Effect”. End-users often have expectations from biometrics that is just not possible. I often get asked the question whether the fingerprint system can interface with our National Database because they saw it on a TV program. Obviously not, but try explaining that to an end-user

There are a few pitfalls in this sudden surge in Biometrics’ popularity!
There are a few pitfalls in this sudden surge in Biometrics’ popularity!

Biometrics will keep on growing in popularity and will go from strength to strength. However, biometrics’ biggest threat is the biometric industry itself– we are our own worst enemy. If sub-standard systems keep on finding it’s way into the market and constant new innovations aren’t introduced the biometrics market may stagnate.


bottom of page