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Biometrics: dream come true or nightmare?

March 4, 2011


Having previously looked at how biometric recognition is more than a fictional spy-thriller, we didn’t look at biometric technology used in the past which seems like something out of the future. These are some of those past biometrics, followed by a few new biometric recognition technologies being proposed for everything from securing your smartphone, replacing the ID in your wallet, and even required testing to prove paternity.

From WikiLeaks diplomat cables, we discovered that the State Department is more interested in collecting biometric data than was previously disclosed. A cable supposedly from Hillary Clinton told certain embassies in Africa to collect more biographical information like fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans for U.S. Intelligence. Besides asking for “detailed biometric information,” the government asked for “e-mail listings; internet and intranet ‘handles’, internet e-mail addresses, web site identification-URLs; credit card account numbers; frequent flyer account numbers; work schedules, and other relevant biographical information.” Other diplomatic cables asked other countries to pick up their spying effort by collecting biometric DNA identification as well as health, biographic, and assessment information on leaders.

Cryptome posted a WikiLeaks cable that revealed in 2009 the Chinese Academy of Sciences was working on gait recognition tech, covertly installed in a floor in order to identify a person by their unique stride. We often hear how China has America beat in technology these days, but in defense of the USA, it seems to me that America was not inferior in any way to China’s biometric tech.

The U.S. Army proposed measuring “expressions, gait, and pose” from a distance at around the same time the Chinese biometric gait device was discovered. Danger Room reported that the Army had also proposed using thermal imaging as biometric sensors to detect abnormal sweating which could indicate hostile intent.

Additionally, the Army wanted “smelling sensors” [PDF] that could “Uniquely identify an individual based on scent without the use of a taggant for the purpose of tracking. This research will result in an improved method for detecting and non-cooperatively identifying individuals based on scent from a distance (time and/or space) and its potential implementation.” That approach to biometrics was supposedly more aggressive and advanced than DARPA’s E-Nose and the Pentagon’s proposed biosensors that could smell fear or nervousness.

But this one really seems like sci-fi movie material – How about identifying people via their shadow? In 2008, Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Adrian Stoica developed a system which would use satellite imagery to track terrorists by their shadows. Stoica’s software used aerial and satellite images to analyze the movement of human shadows. And shadows, New Scientist noted, “provide enough gait data to deduce a positive ID.”

Believe it or not, that’s old school gait biometrics. That might have sounded like fiction, something out of a spy-thriller, but it happened even while the effectiveness and management of biometric technology was still being debated.

More recently researchers have been working to bring biometric security that measures gait to smartphones. As we move closer to using smartphones as electronic wallets, one way to help secure it is by using “passive” biometrics, such as your fingerprint, your heartbeat, and your unique way of walking,  Researchers published Unobtrusive User-Authentication on Mobile Phones using Biometric Gait Recognition, but the gait recognition still needs work. One out of five times, the phone registered a false positive or a false negative when trying to determine the user based solely on gait analysis.

Would you want to live in a city where you don’t need to carry identification since the city is secured by biometric technology? Singularity Hub reported on Global Rainmakers, Inc. (GRI) turning Leon, Mexico into the first city to be secured via biometric identification. “Large archway detectors using infrared imaging can pick out 50 people per minute, even as they hustle by at speeds up to 1.5 meters per second (3.3 mph).” Proving your identification with your eyes could be used for withdrawing money from an ATM, identification at a hospital, or for more mundane tasks like riding the bus.

Jeff Carter, chief business development officer of GRI, told Fast Company that GRI has worked with 3-letter agencies to capture iris scans from over 30 feet away. The biometric sensors could eventually be the size of a dime and capture “hundreds, probably thousands” of irises at a time. Homeland Security has already tested GRI iris scanners at McAllen, Texas, Border Patrol stations to track illegal aliens.

Other “advances” in biometric technology include required DNA testing such the bill recently introduced in the Kansas House of Representatives to determine paternity for each child. Hutch News reported that the bill calls for every child and alleged father to be required to submit to genetic tests prior to leaving the hospital. If the baby is born outside a hospital, then “the baby, mother and alleged father shall submit to testing within 10 days of the birth.”

Not all biometrics are as controversial or invasive. The International Journal of Biometrics recently published using biometrics to construct a 3D face from a 2D image which could be used for identity management and security applications, or in forensics investigations.

While some folks think biometrics are a dream come true, other folks think biometrics are a nightmare. Either way, they are here to stay and will increasingly become more common in everyday life.

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