Monday, June 1, 2009


Biometrics technology is used for either identification or authentication purposes. Among all the biometric techniques, fingerprint-based identification is the oldest method (its history is going back as far as at least 6000 BC), which has been successfully used in various applications. A fingerprint pattern is a pattern made by the ridges and furrows (valleys) on the surface of the finger. Just as every Zebra has a unique black and white stripe pattern, every human has a unique set of fingerprints.

Though every hand carries a unique set of fingerprints, it also can carry bacteria, pathogens, and viruses that cause diseases. Thus, the hand that feeds a person could also make the person and others sick if proper care is not taken like washing hands frequently etc. So, it is very important that people realize this fact and become hygiene cautions for benefit of themselves and others.

In an airport people from different parts of the world fly in and out and they don’t travel alone but infectious germs also hitchhike with them. A large portion of the travelers are not hygiene cautions, for example, a recent American Society for Microbiology study found that almost a third of people who use public restrooms while passing through international airports fail to wash their hands.
Infectious diseases are the leading cause of death and disease worldwide, and the third leading cause of death in the United States. The diseases that can spread due to this carelessness of people range from the common cold or influenza up to more serious diseases such as hepatitis and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the current swine flu and more.

Fingerprint-based identification has been extensively used at airports and has become an inseparable part of the immigration process all around the world including USA. Few reasons for this popularity of biometric fingerprinting systems are that fingerprint biometric systems are:
· Easy to use
· Cheap
· Small size
· Low power
· Non-intrusive
· Large database already available

Inspite of all these advantages, one of the drawbacks in the current biometric fingerprinting systems is they act as point of transmission of infection from one person to another. The other drawbacks of biometric fingerprinting systems, such as their vulnerability to attack by fake finger, information leakage etc are discussed in the following articles:

A step-by-step explanation of how current fingerprinting technology helps in spreading of disease among people is as follows:
In an airport people congregate from different parts of the world and many of them carry microorganisms/pathogens on their fingers.
During fingerprinting at the immigration/security check the traveler places his finger on the fingerprint scanner, thus transferring the microbes from his/her skin to the sensor surface.
Part of the transferred microbes on the sensor surface may die but the others survive.
The next traveler who places his finger on the sensor picks up some of the microbes left behind on the sensor by the previous traveler.
When a traveler touches his/her nose, mouth or eyes with the germ clad fingers, he/she can get infected with disease and further spread it around.

The paper “Biometric Fingerprinting for Visa Application: Device and
Procedure Are Risk Factors for Infection Transmission” gives a detailed analysis of the health hazards that current biometric fingerprinting systems can cause.
Related Link:
The above research paper acknowledges the fact that Transmission risk exists for (but not limited to) enteric viruses (rotavirus, norovirus, and hepatitis A virus), respiratory viruses (respiratory syncytial virus, rhinovirus, influenza virus, etc.), and enteropathogenic bacteria with low infectious doses ( Shigella dysenteriae , Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli , etc.). According to the article the transmission of human rotavirus is estimated at 191 [95% credible intervals (CI) 0 – 289] per million fingerprint-capturing procedures.


Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe diarrhoeal disease in infants and young children globally. Rotaviruses are estimated to be responsible for approximately 530,000 deaths each year in many developing countries. In the U.S., rotavirus is responsible for approximately 5 to 10 percent of all episodes of diarrhea among children younger than 5 years of age. Each year in the U.S., rotavirus is responsible for more than 400,000 doctor visits; more than 200,000 emergency room visits; 55,000 to 70,000 hospitalizations; and between 20 and 60 deaths. Rotavirus leads to about $1 billion in health care costs and lost productivity per year in the U.S.
Related Link:

The Norovirus causes approximately 90% of epidemic non-bacterial outbreaks of gastroenteritis around the world. Norovirus affects people of all ages. The viruses are transmitted by faecally contaminated food or water and by person-to-person contact. In the United States, norovirus infections are estimated to cause 23 million illnesses a year and may cause up to 50% of all foodborne outbreaks. Seroprevalence studies in the Amazon, southern Africa, Mexico, Chile, and Canada have shown that norovirus infections are common throughout the world, and most children will have experienced at least one infection by the age of 5 years. Infection can occur year round.
Related Links:

The Hepatitis A virus (HAV) infects liver cells causing inflammation of the liver (hepatitis). Hepatitis A has a worldwide distribution occurring in both epidemic and sporadic fashions. About 22,700 cases of hepatitis A representing 38% of all hepatitis cases (5-year average from all routes of transmission) are reported annually in the U.S. In developing countries, the incidence of disease in adults is relatively low because of exposure to the virus in childhood. Most individuals 18 and older demonstrate an immunity that provides lifelong protection against reinfection. In the U.S., the percentage of adults with immunity increases with age (10% for those 18-19 years of age to 65% for those over 50). Hepatitis A virus (HAV) infection is rarely fatal except in patients with chronic liver disease.
Related Link:
The following article analyzes death of a traveler due to hepatitis A virus.

Respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus, or RSV, is a respiratory virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages. Most otherwise healthy people recover from RSV infection in 1 to 2 weeks. However, infection can be severe in some people, such as certain infants, young children, and older adults. In fact, RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia in children under 1 year of age in the United States. In the United States, approximately 50% of infants and young children become infected with RSV each winter season. RSV causes about 90,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths per year in children under age 5 years. In addition, RSV is more often being recognized as an important cause of respiratory illness in older adults.
Related Article:

Rhinoviruses are the most common viral infective agents in humans, and a causative agent of the common cold. Human rhinovirus is a leading cause of respiratory infections in adults and children. Adults, on average, get infected with the virus once per year. Lung transplant patients, with impaired immune systems due to drugs to halt rejection, are at potentially higher risk from the virus. In fact the rhinovirus struck two immunosuppressed lung transplant patients, leading to progressive respiratory failure, graft dysfunction and finally death.
Related Link:

Influenza, commonly known as "the flu," is a highly contagious viral infection of the respiratory tract caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. Every year in the United States, on average, 5% to 20% of the population gets the flu; more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu-related complications; and about 36,000 people die from flu-related causes. There are three types of influenza viruses: A, B, and C. Major outbreaks of influenza are associated with influenza virus type A or B. Infection with type B influenza is usually milder than type A. Type C virus is associated with minor symptoms.
The recent (2009) flu in humans, known as "swine flu", is due to a new strain of influenza A virus subtype H1N1 that contains genes closely related to swine influenza. The origin of this new strain is unknown. However, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) reports that this strain has not been isolated in pigs. This strain can be transmitted from human to human, and causes the normal symptoms of influenza. The Swine flu has been compared to other similar types of influenza virus in terms of mortality and it appears that in the US for every 1000 people who get infected, about 40 people need admission to hospital and about one person dies.
Related Links:
The current biometric fingerpring system that intended to protect one’s identity is highly insecure when it comes to protecting one’s health, as the system aids in the spread of diseases among travelers. It is beyond the control of airport authorities worldwide to counsel/babysit all travelers to make them hygiene concious, but at the same time some kind of control needs to be implemented so that others don’t have to pay the price for someones negligence. Thus, the biometric fingerprinting system needs to be changed such that it provides security to both one’s identity and health.
The e-Smart technology match-on-card biometric fingerprinting system not only overcomes the drawbacks of the existing fingerprinting system when it comes to protecting one’s identity, but also provides medical security to its travelers. In the e-Smart security system every traveler will have a personal fingerprint sensor integrated in into the travel document. Also, the travel document would contain a fingerprint template of the person that is secured through encryption. During authentication at immigration the traveler would place his finger on the sensor integrated in the travel document. Thus, there is no fear of transfer of pathogens from one traveler to another via sensor, as every one will have their own personal sensor.