Palm Vein ID Scan Makes U.S. Debut
Eric Bland, Discovery News
Aug. 18, 2008 -- Palm vein scans are about to make their American debut. Used in Japanese automated teller machines for more than five years, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) recently announced that by next year all students who want to attend business school will be required to take a palm vein scan to verify their identity.
"It's easy to steal a fingerprint," said Hiroko Naito, a member of Fujitsu's PalmSecure Team that developed the technology. "Palm vein information physically resides inside the patient, making it harder to steal."
The palm scans are designed to thwart proxy test taking, a scam where an applicant pays someone else (the proxy) to take the test for them so they can get a higher score than they otherwise would. The palm vein scans wouldn't stop other forms of test fraud, such as test question collection or calling different time zones with the test questions.
A palm vein scan works like this: A person would hold their hand, palm down, over a computer mouse-sized sensor for a few seconds -- not touching anything. Near-infrared light, the same near-infrared light that changes your television channel, shines out. Most of the light bounces back to the detector and shows up as white on the scan.
Some of the light is absorbed by the veins, and creates dark lines on the otherwise ghostly-looking hand.
The difference between light and dark is basic anatomy. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood. Veins carry oxygen-poor blood. When red blood cells drop off oxygen they change. Instead of reflecting near-infrared light, the red blood cells in veins absorb it.
It's like a fingerprint inside the body, said Naito, except it's more accurate and harder to fake.
Fujitsu claims their palm scanner is roughly 100 times more accurate than the average fingerprint. Instead of comparing pictures of swirling, curling fingerprints visually, the palm scanner converts the vein scan into digital data that is then run through a computer algorithm that compares the hand hovering above the scanner with the data in memory to authorize access.
If an unauthorized person wanted to gain access it would be difficult. A person's fingerprints can be lifted easily and replicated with some difficulty. It's much harder to gain access to a palm vein profile since people don't leave traces of it on every object they touch with their hands.
The hand also has to be alive, exchanging gasses, and full of blood for the veins to show up on the scan. In grim terms, that means a person couldn't cut off another person's hand and hold it over the scanner.
Another advantage of palm vein scanners over fingerprints is that more people can use them. By most estimates, about 2 percent of people don't have readable fingerprints. Anything from a missing finger to dry skin can throw off a fingerprint.
Some of the driest hands are found on doctors and nurses, who have to scrub and wash their hands many times a day, drying the skin and rubbing down fingerprints. Fujitsu expects hospitals will be another big market for palm vein scanners.
Palm vein scans have been used in Japanese ATM's for more than five years but have only recently made their way across the Pacific Ocean.
Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)-takers in South Korea and India will use the scanners starting next month. Some U.S. testers will use the scanners starting this fall, and by May, all of business school applicants will use the technology.
While a firm price for the palm vein scanners hasn't been set by Fujitsu, it is estimated that it will be below $1,000. That means it will be more expensive than fingerprinting, but should be much less expensive than iris scanners, the gold standard of biometric scans which can cost around $10,000 each.
More than 230,000 GMAT tests are administered each year at a cost of $250 for each test. The GMAC, which administers the GMAT, says that the cost of the test will not increase because of the palm scanners.
The scanners should help deter cheaters, said Donald McCabe, a researcher at Rutgers University who has studied cheating across academic disciplines and found that business school students self-report the most cheating.
"Making people take palm scans is unfortunate for people who do their work honestly; it says we don't trust you," said McCabe. "But in the end it will be a good thing, because it will help ensure that people who deserve a spot in business school get it."