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Face, Iris and Fingerprint Biometrics Good Enough for Now, Says White House Staffer 


By Stew Magnuson 

Federal agencies that collect biometric data to screen individuals should concentrate their efforts on fingerprints, faces and irises, and perfect the collection of those technologies first, said a White House official.

The growing fields of biometrics and identity management have brought forth a plethora of small businesses and startups with ideas on how to confirm the identity of an individual through his or her unique physical characteristics.

Scanning the patterns of the veins in the palm of the hand, along with the shapes of ears, voices and the way a person walks are some technologies proposed during the past few years.

Monte Hawkins, director of identity management and biometrics policy at the White House national security staff, said there must be consistency in the way federal agencies collect such data.

“At least in the screening world, we have to focus on the three primary modalities, which are face, fingers and iris … especially given the financial constraints we’re in now,” he said at the National Defense Industrial Association biometrics conference in Arlington, Va.

“Not to say that other modalities aren’t useful for other agencies or individual programs. …  [But] you’ve got to build the databases to make them worthwhile,” he added.

Federal agencies are falling short in their efforts to collect and share biometric data, he said, adding that consistency in the collection realm is one solution.

This proclamation from the White House may seem like bad news for vendors who are touting some of the more esoteric biometric data collection systems. However, different agencies use biometric data for different reasons.

The Department of Justice and the FBI, for example, are focused on forensics.  In this case, investigators seek to solve the identity of perpetrators of crimes, or acts of terrorism, rather than screening individuals to confirm that they are who they say they are. The Defense Department is also heavily involved in forensics as it tries to uncover bomb-making networks. But it also wants screening systems that can identify those who have access to its facilities and bases.

The Departments of State and Homeland Security are screening individuals to ensure they are not on terrorist watch lists, or are criminals attempting to illegally enter the United States.
“You don’t leave a face on a bomb. You don’t leave an iris on a bomb,” said Navy Cmdr. Ty Schaedel, deputy chief of the enterprise operations division at the Defense Department’s biometrics task force.

Nevertheless, the military has been collecting from known or suspected terrorists it encounters in Iraq or Afghanistan a variety of markers in addition to the three main modalities — face, iris and fingers — including voice and palm prints and DNA.

Along with keeping potentially dangerous people off bases, the military sometimes uses this information to uncover terrorist networks. A latent fingerprint on an improvised explosive device can lead to a suspect if the print is in a database.

The FBI, meanwhile, has been keeping fingerprint databases for more than 100 years. Its next generation identification system will improve the time it takes for agents or police officers to receive a response from the bureau’s database, said Steve Morris, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s criminal justice information services division.

Increasing speed and efficiency is currently a higher priority than adding different modalities, he said. The bureau has plans to add palm prints to its database, but something like irises doesn’t interest it as much since the FBI is not a screening agency, he said.

Even in the realm of forensics, different departments have different needs, said Jeff Salyards, program manager at the Army’s criminal investigation laboratory. A domestic law enforcement team can put yellow tape around a crime scene and take all the time it needs to collect evidence. Not so in a war zone, he said.

“You might have four minutes to collect things and in about a minute you’re told you’re being shot at,” and ordered to leave the scene, he said. The military needs “faster, better and cheaper” ways to collect evidence in the field, such as latent fingerprints. That will be a difficult technological challenge, he said.

“You can make it faster and better, but that’s not going to be cheap,” he said. “Given some time, maybe we can do all three.”

John Brennan, senior advisor to the State Department’s bureau of consular affairs, said the agency will be expanding a facial recognition program, which is currently only used for visa applications. In this case, computer programs check applicants’ digital photographs against a database of some 78 million photos to search for matches. The same photo under different names may indicate fraud.

“There have always been pictures in passports. And for most of the world, there have been pictures in visas,” Brennan said. The bureau checked about 5 million photos last year, but next year expects to do more. There has been a slump in international travel because of the poor economy, so he expects those numbers to go up.

Visas issued by the United States have had photos for the past 10 years. Applicants also submit to 10-fingerprint scans under the Department of Homeland Security’s US-VISIT program.

There is a pilot program now under way to check the photos for U.S. citizens applying for passports. As for expanding screening to iris recognition, there is another pilot program to determine the feasibility of adding this as well, he said.

“Where it goes will depend on results of the pilot program,” he said.

Steve Yonkers, deputy assistant director for business policy and planning at the DHS’ US-VISIT program, said the department has completed its conversion from two to 10-fingerprint systems.  

“We’re now able to receive those latent prints from all over the world and war zones, and have a much better chance of catching bad guys,” he said. The department is now taking a closer look at adding iris and facial recognition to its databases. It has carried out some tests to see if the data can be collected as subjects walk through portals. Meanwhile, other agencies within DHS are telling the program that they want to move into facial and iris recognition, he said.

Sharla Rausch, chief of the human factors division at DHS’ science and technology directorate, said there is a lot of work to be done in improving the ability to collect photos, fingerprints and iris scans in the field.

“We know we’re not going to necessarily have high quality of each,” she said.

DHS agents must collect this data in a variety of extreme conditions. Coast Guard personnel are collecting fingerprints at sea. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection officers sometimes operate in remote areas outdoors, and in every climate from high desert heat in the Southwest to cold, winter conditions in the north.

Even in airports, where conditions may seem ideal, there has to be greater accuracy in matching what is collected to the databases. There may be 1.2 million travelers entering the Unites States in a given day.

Some say “it has to be 99 percent accurate. Well, that’s a heckuva lot of false positives or false negatives. We have to have those decimal points way out there,” she said.

False negatives may result in bad guys entering the United States. An abundance of false positives results in too many subjects being sent to secondary screening, which has an impact on staffing and the efficient flow of people through ports of entry, Rausch said.

Her program is carrying out research on 3-D fingerprint scanning systems. Such an image can be rotated and looked at more carefully for more accurate matching.

“You can get to the heart of the fingerprint so you can get to the capillary activity,” she said. That may eliminate spoofing.

“This means that gummy bears will no longer give their lives to develop those false fingerprints,” she said, referring to the ability to spoof scanners with imprints pressed on the candy.

A 3-D reader would also be better able to pick up difficult-to-read fingerprints. Asian women are known to have fine fingerprints, she said.

Patrick Flynn, professor of computer science and engineering at Notre Dame University, said there are still ongoing debates on which modality is better for identifying individuals.

“’My mode is better than your mode. My sensor is better than your sensor.’ That will continue. That’s healthy provided we have the appropriate filters on so we can judge claims appropriately,” he said.

The problem is that the basic research has lagged behind the deployment of the technology. Irises provide a case in point. Vendors say they are stable for a lifetime. But there are no studies to see if that claim has statistical rigor, Flynn said.

“We would love to collect iris images for 10 or 20 years and do a real aging study based on a longtime baseline. It would be real difficult to do, but I think the science demands it,” he said.

A multi-modal system seems to be the way to go, Flynn said, because each has its weaknesses during the collection process.

“For any mode you can think of, there is a certain percentage of the population that will not possess the biometric at all. Or if they do possess it, will possess it but not in a way that can be easily captured,” he said.

For irises, there are some people who don’t have them, whose eyes can’t hold still, or they look in different directions. Ocular surgery can change the shape, or damage the iris. A subject can also lose an eye.

Workers in the masonry industry may have fingerprints that are not detectable, and there is the aforementioned problem with Asian women.

There are facial features that are missing, and some subjects have unstable traits. “We all know facial hair comes and goes,” he said. Scars, marks and tattoos can be added after a photo is taken. Those can prevent software from making matches. And there are cultural barriers to exposing the face in some cases, he said.
“All of this motivates the use of multiple technologies,” Flynn said.

The answer might be taking multiple samples and multiple measurements, with each sample making up for the shortcomings of others. Facial, fingerprints and irises can be collected and assigned a numeric value, with the highest ranking numbers meaning there is a better chance for a match, he said.

Reader Comments

Re: Face, Iris and Fingerprint Biometrics Good Enough for Now, Says White House Staffer

A pronounceent like this from the WHite House carries a lot of weight, but I wonder what added use cases for biomentric identity determinations will be stiffled, e.g., access to computers or mobile phone service?

Robert on 08/10/2010 at 12:19

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