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Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2006


Crime fight goes high-tech to protect kids, assets

Staff writer

Not long ago most people in Japan felt this was one of the most crime-free nations in the world, but recent high-profile, violent crimes have shattered that sense of security.

News photo
The veins of a Fujitsu Ltd. official's palm are shown on a computer equipped with the firm's palm vein identification device.

True to the saying that necessity is the mother of invention, high demand has led to new technologies to protect people and their property.

According to the Japan Security Systems Association, the domestic market for security systems has been growing in recent years, with sales rising to around 1.2 trillion yen in fiscal 2003 from 838.4 billion yen in fiscal 1999.

"There has been a rise in the number of security appliances sold as the number of crimes has grown and authorities provide (the public with) education and instructions on crime prevention," association official Koichi Hori said.

With crimes increasing and violent, even deadly assaults on children making headlines, a key focus of new technology has been to protect kids from harm.

Integrated circuit tags that store information, originally introduced to manage the transport and distribution of goods, are now serving as anticrime devises.

Between April and July, NTT Data Corp. and two other companies experimented with a service using wireless IC tags given to 188 children in Aoba Ward, Yokohama.

Toshihiko Horima, senior executive manager of the market development section of NTT Data's third public administration systems sector, said he came up with the idea for the service after a man massacred eight students in June 2001 at an Osaka elementary school.

"I thought we needed a system to know what is happening to children since parents cannot always watch over them," said Horima, a father of three.

In the Yokohama experiment, children carried IC tags that transmit radio signals to 27 receivers installed in a 1-sq.-km area.

When a child with a tag passed near a receiver, the parents were notified with an e-mail message.

Confronted by danger, children could push a button on the tag to transmit an emergency signal to parents, local residents registered to take part in the trial and a private security company.

Another Japanese security company is already marketing a similar service using GPS.

The IC tag used in NTT Data's trial is of the active type, meaning it has a built-in battery and sends radio signals to receivers. It was developed by Tokyo-based Totoku Electric Co., the first Japanese firm to manufacture this type of IC tag.

More commonly used IC tags, for example those built into East Japan Railway Co.'s Suica cards, are passive -- they have no battery and are recognized when placed close to a reader machine.

Totoku's IC tags boast the longest battery life in the world -- 19 months when the radio transmission interval is once per second, according to company official Yoshiyuki Ota.

Since October 2004, some private schools have introduced the tags to inform parents of the time kids arrive at and leave school, he said.

NTT Data's Horima said most of the parents who took part in the company's experiment said they liked the service, but he acknowledged that hurdles remain before the tags can be mass marketed.

For example, the receivers can only catch radio waves within a radius of some 30 meters, so the system can't cover all the places children go, he said. The company would have to set up many more receivers, each costing hundreds of thousands of, yen for better coverage.

Israeli and U.S. firms are the leaders in active IC tags, according to Horima. The Israeli firm AeroScout has a tag with a reception range of 100 meters.

NTT Data is currently experimenting with AeroScout tags in another trial in Yokohama that aims to prevent traffic accidents by alerting drivers to the presence of children.

Totoku's Ota said that while its tags have a shorter range, its system provides a more exact location because its antennas can catch radio waves from any direction, whereas those used by AeroScout only catch radio waves coming from the front.

"We've received a number of inquiries about our IC tags from systems integration firms," Ota said, noting his company also envisions marketing them overseas.

Another area of technological innovation is protection against identity theft.

With the rise in cash card forgeries, many banks have started equipping their automated teller machines with biometric security systems that can identify people by scanning their physical characteristics.

One such system employs palm vein identification. Fujitsu Ltd. said it has sold more than 10,000 units for ATMs, computers, office entrances and other uses since its system was put on the market in July 2004.

"Veins are impossible to forge because they are located in the body," said Akira Wakabayashi, director of Fujitsu's biometric business development department.

In October, the technology won The Wall Street Journal's 2005 Technology Innovation Award for Security in Networks.

Another biometric identification system gaining attention scans the iris, whose muscles form patterns unique to each individual.

In August, Tohoku University and Yamatake Corp. said they succeeded in developing software that uses a new iris identification method.

Their method produces detailed three-dimensional images of objects from pictures taken by two separate cameras, said Koji Kobayashi, director of Yamatake's biometric development office.

"The software can examine very closely how identical or different the image in (the system's) memory banks and the object (in the photos) are," he said.

Previously, there was only one commercialized method of iris identification, developed by Cambridge University professor John Daugman, according to Kobayashi. The Daugman method, which converts iris patterns into codes, was patented in the U.S. in 1991.

While the Daugman method is highly accurate and has been used by firms worldwide, its accuracy rate falls when used in a situation where the sun shines directly into someone's eyes, Kobayashi said.

Although such conditions will also reduce the accuracy of the Yamatake-Tohoku University system, the drop is less than that of Daugman's method, he said.

While some Japanese companies have developed top-level identification technologies using fingerprints, prints can change when the skin is dry or inflamed and as the person ages, Kobayashi said.

Palm veins can become unclear when a person has low blood pressure or bad circulation, he added. But iris patterns change little throughout one's lifetime.

Yamatake said it is now conducting market research on what products should employ the system.

Naohisa Komatsu, a Waseda University professor and an expert in biometric identification, said the level of technology Japanese companies have in the field is top-rate.

But he also pointed out that hurdles remain, among them compatibility and standardization, before biometric security systems take root in society.

For example, while Fujitsu's palm vein system is used by the Mitsubishi Tokyo Financial Group Inc., Hitachi Ltd.'s finger vein system debuted in December at ATMs of the Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group.

"A person with a bank account at Mitsubishi Tokyo will not be able to withdraw money at another bank unless the other bank also has the palm vein identification system," he said, arguing that companies need to consider how to make different identification systems compatible.

Methods to evaluate accuracy also need to be standardized, he said.

The evaluation issue and guidelines for protecting privacy when using physical characteristics as identification are among issues currently being discussed at a subcommittee of the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission specializing on standardization of biometric technologies, he said.

But while some Japanese firms are leaders in such technology, the overall level of this nation's technology for security equipment and systems ranks below those of the United States, Middle Eastern countries and Europe, which have experienced more crime and terrorism, according to Hori of the Japan Security Systems Association.

"(Japanese makers) need to put more thought into how to sell their products overseas," he said, adding that companies should also promote the advantages of their detailed designs and systems.

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