National Physical Laboratory

Standardising biometric devices

Tony Mansfield collects fingerprints. At last count, he had 160,000 of these unique biometric markers under lock and key at NPL.


Europe, a leader in fingerprint biometrics, has called for the use of this technology in future travel documents and visas. Dr Mansfield is leading a team of EC partners in a major project to make sure different equipment provides the same results no matter where it is used.

A person's fingerprint may be captured and stored in the UK using a particular type of equipment. Border officials who check the identity of that person in a different country may not be using the same kit, so it is vital they at least use the same standards and that systems are compatible.

The vast database of fingerprints in Dr Mansfield's office has been painstakingly collected from thousands of people who provided prints using several different devices. They are being treated as confidential information and are not linked to the identity of their owners.

"The success of biometrics depends on accuracy and public confidence," Dr Mansfield says."We are making sure that every device used to collect fingerprints, or to identify people based on their biometric records, works in a sufficiently similar way."

NPL has internationally recognised credentials in performance testing, measurement and calibration of biometric systems and Dr Mansfield has advised Parliament's Science and Technology Committee on biometric issues around ID cards.

Ambient identification

Dr Mansfield expects biometrics to reach critical mass when it is widely used by government agencies.

But biometrics has applications way beyond border posts and passport control. Personal computers or mobile phones with built in biometric systems may soon be able to specify the individual permitted to access particular information, as well as allowing biometric authentication of bank transactions.

Systems currently require individuals to make an effort to be recognised. Future ambient biometrics may be able to identify individuals when they walk into a room. They could also be installed on potentially hazardous machinery so only trained operators can use it.

Besides fingerprints, current biometric markers include faces, eyes, vein patterns on hands or the retina, voice recognition or signature systems.

"Different systems suit different jobs, and complicated solutions aren't always best," says Mansfield. "If people are used to signing their names for a particular application, then perhaps the most optimal biometric system can be built around that."

For more information contact Tony Mansfield

Find out more about NPL's research in Defence & Security and Mathematics & Scientific Computing

Last Updated: 7 Jan 2013
Created: 2 Aug 2007


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