The Big Picture for Biometrics: Applications, Limitations & Regulations

From curtailing COVID-19 to cutting crime, five award-winners detail the promising technologies’ pressing and relevant issues.

The Big Picture for Biometrics: Applications, Limitations & Regulations

When something harmful affects humans’ well-being on a large scale or in a particularly shocking manner, people question the why of it and seek ways to eliminate or reduce similar outcomes. Examples from recent decades include global terrorism, active-shooter scenarios and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In today’s digitized world, the answer — in conjunction with implementing best practices, policies and preparedness — typically involves security and safety technologies. Especially in light of recent advances, more and more biometrics is pervading those discussions.

To bring security professionals up to speed, Security Sales & Integration enlisted the Security Industry Association (SIA) to recruit the five winners of this year’s Women in Biometrics Awards to participate in a roundtable addressing the industry’s present state. Organized and sponsored by SIA, its Women in Security Forum, SecureIDNews, IDEMIA and Biometric Update, the awards program honors top female leaders helping to drive the biometric identity and security industry.

The panel consisted of Jeni Best, branch chief at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP); Anne May, biometric support center lead, Identity Operations Division, Office of Biometric Identity Management at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Mei Ngan, computer scientist, Image Group, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); Lauren Reed, senior program director for biometric forensics, IDEMIA National Security Solutions; and Annet Steenbergen, co-founder of the Aruba Happy Flow Project.

This esteemed group of biometrics leaders explores the pandemic’s impact along with the challenges and opportunities associated with it, the latest biometrics technology developments and applications, regulations, and what the future looks like.

Pandemic Impact

One of the areas the pandemic has brought attention to and accelerated demand for is with contactless biometrics. With improvements in capture technology and matching algorithms, contactless biometrics for fingerprints was already making great strides in the marketplace.

In addition to the speed of contactless, COVID-19 has highlighted the need for a method that does not require an enroller to touch an enrollee or require stopping to sanitize between successive individuals using a biometric system for access.

Other emerging areas that have been accelerated include electronic identification [eIDs], such as electronic driver’s licenses and cashless financial transactions. The onset of the pandemic has accelerated the desire to not exchange physical items including cash, credit cards and credentials. As eIDs gain more widespread acceptance, further exploration should be conducted for expansion into remote ID verification, as the shift has been away from in-person transactions to online and/or via mail. One such example is the possibility of introducing biometrics into the vote by mail infrastructure. A new area that has come to the forefront and become an active area of research is the ability to accurately recognize masked individuals using facial recognition. – Lauren Reed

This pandemic has presented new and unprecedented challenges, and opportunities, to the biometrics industry. The widespread practice of people wearing protective face masks in public places is challenging biometric providers to be able to do face recognition when about 70% of the face is occluded by a mask. This has driven the need for independent testing of these new scenarios and capabilities. NIST has recently conducted studies that measure the performance accuracy of contactless fingerprint devices and face recognition algorithm performance on faces occluded by masks. – Mei Ngan

We see implementation of biometrics being fast-tracked in the world of travel. Due to COVID-19, the feature of biometrics being contactless/touchless has overnight come to be at the top of the list of benefits. Implementing biometrics is not only good to gain the trust of the traveler to fly safely again, but it is also important to uphold health safety and border security. – Annet Steenbergen

We are just beginning to see what the impacts will be from COVID-19 on biometric technologies. Events like these often drive innovation, but some of this technology can’t change overnight. – Anne May

COVID-19 Opportunities

Access security has long been dominated by human guards, manually examining credentials and controlling admission. Not only are people expensive, but they often have no means of validating if the credential presented is authentic or actively valid for its presented use. This was problematic pre-COVID and has only gotten worse in the present environment when person-to-person contact must be minimized. Now, it’s more likely that a subject just holds up an ID and security personnel try to compare from a distance, increasing the already high chance of error and unauthorized access. This is causing many to rethink existing solutions and consider automated biometric access systems. – Reed

Implementing the use of biometrics in a travel ecosystem has become more urgent; however, it should be done in a deliberate manner. Using biometrics for the travel process means implementing identity management, often in cooperation with other public and private stake-holders. This entails that data privacy and data sharing agreements be in place before rolling out the biometric technology. Though this may seem like a big hurdle, there are standards and tools that will help guide this like the Privacy by Design principles, International Air Transport Association’s One ID and performing a data protection impact assessment. – Steenbergen

CBP believes biometrics are an essential part of a long-term solution in the new face of travel, but to what capacity and extent is still to be determined. Besides being a faster and more secure way of processing travelers, the health crisis has given CBP the opportunity to showcase one of the additional benefits of biometric boarding — being a touchless process that does not require close contact and handling of travel documents and boarding passes for identity verification and departure confirmation. – Best

Virus Aftermath

In the short term, the biometrics industry will have to develop solutions to respond to new public healthy safety practices as a result of the pandemic. The improvements being developed and built into biometric systems/infrastructure will likely have lasting benefits in the long term, as heightened sensitivity to public health safety is going to be around for a long time. – Ngan

Whether it is making a payment, interacting with the government or checking in for a flight, we will see the use of digital identity in society become common very soon. The crucial key to verifying our digital identity is biometric verification via our mobile devices, which will bring the use of biometrics to become an everyday technology for everybody. – Steenbergen

While industry partners have already started implementing biometric boarding procedures, we believe in the long term that more and more partners will be interested in implementing biometrics throughout the travel journey, from check-in to boarding, to facilitate further safety and security. – Best

In the short term we will expect to see the emergence of contactless biometrics in a variety of new applications, from controls to limit the number of people allowed into enclosed spaces to secure access control for sensitive areas. In the long term, the pandemic is accelerating the replacement of physical credentials and username/passwords with automated access control and positive identification based on biometrics in a wide array of arenas, including the workplace, the web, travel, health care and more. As these technologies become even more commonplace, we will expect our computers to recognize us and provide individualized services automatically. – Reed

Biometric Breakthroughs

Significant improvements have been made in face recognition technology the past few years, due in large part to machine learning and deep convolutional neural networks, large amounts of data available used for training, and ongoing NIST testing to track the state of the art. Modern face recognition algorithms have yielded better accuracy, pose invariance and processing times. Note that while face recognition has seen remarkable gains in accuracy, there remain limitations to the technology such as recognition on very young children, twins, poor-quality photos and demographic differentials. – Ngan

The use of convolutional neural network technology, and artificial intelligence in general, to improve searching/matching performance for all biometric modalities has led to what NIST has called “an industrial revolution” in accuracy. One area where this has a significant potential impact is with latent fingerprints from crime scenes and items of evidence. Until recently, the end-to-end latent print database search process has been completely manual due to the complexities presented by what are often partial and distorted images. The vast improvements in searching and matching performance allow for many latent prints to now be auto-encoded, lead to shorter and more dynamic candidate lists and even the possibility of some level of lights-out matching similar to ten prints.

Continuing evolution in computer, communications and camera technology has also allowed face, vehicle and sometimes activity recognition to be added at the edge, often eliminating the need to backhaul video to central locations for review and analysis, and greatly reducing cost. Person trap, turnstile and other access control equipment, coupled with contactless biometric sensors, now allow frictionless access to large groups of authorized persons while prohibiting entry to the unauthorized at cost-effective prices. – Reed

The walking pace biometric facial recognition technology, like what has been tested by the European Border Agency, Frontex, is crucial for flow management, especially at airports. In Aruba we have already been using technology for our Happy Flow check-in. I expect to see further implementations of this technology now that COVID-19 measures require more distancing and the prevention of people contaminating each other while standing in queues. – Steenbergen

Vertical Growth

The emergence of biometric-based eIDs for areas like healthcare, with the increases in accuracy and usability, will likely drive significant increases in information sharing and privacy controls for patients. These improvements, combined with Cloud storage, should have beneficial impacts to managing medical data by giving more control to individuals and making it easier to access. – Reed

For travel, there is an important development; the International Civil Aviation Organization is soon launching standards for the first type of digital travel credential [DTC] based on our e-passport. Before long, we will check in for a flight and send our DTCs and our digital health certificates all from our mobile devices. Your information will be pushed to the government, airline and destination airport, which will only receive the information it is authorized to have and needs to have from you. In Aruba it is our vision that we connect this service to include car rental pickup and hotel check-in, making it a touchless and seamless experience. – Steenbergen

Facial Fallout

Significant gains in the accuracy of face recognition technology have been observed in recent years, contributing to its widespread adoption and use in both commercial and government applications. The number of face recognition providers has increased significantly the past few years. While there are some algorithms that are quite capable and very accurate, not all algorithms are good — there are magnitudes of differences in accuracy between the good algorithms and the bad ones. – Ngan

While most algorithms exhibit performance differentials across demographic groups, ages and genders — and we must continue on a relentless path to improve in this area — the best 40+ algorithms are far superior to human performance on the same tasks and can play an important role in public safety. Until policies on appropriate use and transparency catch up with regard to this technology, however, there will be mistrust and arbitrary limitations placed on its use. – Reed

CBP envisions the expansion of facial biometrics to more airports throughout the United States and the globe. Facial recognition and comparison technologies provide an excellent means to identify travelers and reduce the need for documents and contact with documents. – Best

I believe that face recognition can be a valuable tool, but it must be used responsibly. Users particularly need to fully understand its limitations and weaknesses and should be thoroughly trained in the proper use and application of the technology. – May

Prime Time Plays

The maturity requirements of a particular biometric technology depend on the application for which it’s being used. Beyond accuracy, there are other factors that come into play for complete biometric systems, including software maturity, extensibility, reliability, ease of integration, maintenance, cost, availability of monitoring tools and support for human review of true and false matches. All these factors can vary widely between technology providers. – Ngan

Face, fingerprint and iris technology are faster, more accurate and less expensive than human review for most applications. Human security staff should in most cases be augmented with biometric technology to obtain the best of both. Often, the personnel costs of excellent security can be significantly reduced while identification accuracy can be increased. – Reed

CBP has devised a reliable and accurate method to use biometrics within the travel industry. We feel the technology is mature enough to operate in this capacity. The use of biometrics in other capacities really depends on the implementation approach and matching algorithms. – Best

There is controversy about racial bias and fear that your biometric can be randomly used. As biometrics is used more everyday, it is crucial to gain and maintain consumers’ trust. Solutions must not be racially biased and be transparent about usage and privacy. – Steenbergen

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About the Author


Scott Goldfine is Editor-in-Chief and Associate Publisher of Security Sales & Integration. Well-versed in the technical and business aspects of electronic security (video surveillance, access control, systems integration, intrusion detection, fire/life safety), Goldfine is nationally recognized as an industry expert and speaker. Goldfine is involved in several security events and organizations, including the Electronic Security Association (ESA), Security Industry Association (SIA), Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC), False Alarm Reduction Association (FARA), ASIS Int'l and more. Goldfine also serves on several boards, including the SIA Marketing Committee, CSAA Marketing and Communications Committee, PSA Cybersecurity Advisory Council and Robolliance. He is a certified alarm technician, former cable-TV tech, audio company entrepreneur, and lifelong electronics and computers enthusiast. Goldfine joined Security Sales & Integration in 1998.

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