The Fundamental Problems of Minority Report-style Biometrics

By Eric Wolff | September 28, 2010 1:10 am

CruiseeyesEye-scanning technology, voice-print security, palm prints: Biometric security has almost become one of the basic signifers of existing in the future, like clean white walls and rounded surfaces. In Minority Report the biometrics extended to the point that Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton, was easily identified by animated advertisements as he walked through a mall, and later on he had to actually replace his own eyeballs so he could avoid detection.

Ickiness aside, biometrics have become less futuristic and more now-istic. The entire town of León, in central Mexicocontracted with Global Rainmakers, Inc., to install iris scanning technology throughout the town. Locals will be able to use iris scanning to get on the bus, use ATMs, and get hospital care.

But the people of Leon might want to consider a report (free with registration) from the National Research Council before they go too far down that road, because there are some significant problems with going all biometric, all the time.

In biometrics, computers aren’t behaving like the human brain, which can match a picture of a thing with another picture as a unified whole. Instead, computers measure: for a face scan, it might be measuring nose length, the distance between the eyes, and so on. But these measurements change over time: Faces become jowly and wrinkled, fingers get fatter, even irises can change over time.

Thus, biometrics become an exercise in probability. Whereas a PIN can be an exact match (1,2,3,4,5 always always equals an idiot’s luggage code), the biometric scanner is hoping to get a good enough measurement so that it  can say this face is probably the one in its database. But in a probablistic model, there’s a chance of both false positives and false negatives, either of which could be awkward when a drunken Leonian wants to take the bus home, or the same Leonian, hungover the next day, needs to get a thousand pesos  from the ATM.

And there’s all sorts of chances for error: If the initial scan is bad, the whole database will be bad; if there’s poor lighting at the scanning point, or if equipment becomes old and worn. The report from the National Research Council goes into detail on all these problems.

And that’s just a part of the technological problem. There are of course significant social concerns of privacy invasion, since a unique eye scan becomes a central fixed point for all electronic interactions. And then there’s the problem of hacking.

Yes, yes, the point of biometrics is that it becomes a password that cannot be guessed or stolen. But as the NRC report notes, a hacker could find a way to submit the bit-code to the system and gain entry. If that happens once, the individual is screwed. Unlike a bank car, your eye cannot be canceled and replaced, nor your fingerprints, nor your palm. All that’s left is a transplant. And that seemed pretty unpleasant for Mr. Anderton.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Biotech, Cyborgs, Top Posts

Comments (7)

Links to this Post

  1. SF Signal: SF Tidbits for 9/29/10 | September 29, 2010
  1. Guess we will have to solve aging before we can really count on biometrics.

  2. Congrats, brilliant post.

  3. Jethro

    and to further the problems, if other countries such as Russia, China, and Pakistan demand that you have your iris scan to enter their country, could they use your iris code to breach or misuse your identity? I am sure the Russian Mafia will pay big bucks for such valuable information.

    So I am having a few drinks waiting for my delayed flight, oops, them five drinks may have been too much since now my pupils are very dilated which has changed my iris structure and then refused my flight. Or them new medications which either constricted or dilated my pupils won’t allow me to take out any funds from my ATM.

    What about the factor of Aging irises which may cause problems or whether eye disease such as stigmatisms, cataracts, inflammations could cause iris recognition systems to fail? I bet this consideration has not been well researched.

    The next step will be the insurance companies buying up all your iris scanned images to see if you have any health problems, on certain drugs (pharma and illicit), neurological diseases, syndromes and then cancel your insurance if you are too high of a risk. Google pupil analysis or check out to see what various pupil signs can indicate.
    Then the day comes when you also get your eyes analyzed by the DEA to make sure you are smoking any of them herbal stimulants! Different drugs have different effects on the pupils and soon the police will be using eye scans to check for possible illicit drug use while driving your car, which may not be a bad thing.. unless you are taking some other doctor prescribed medication that mimics the same response as some illicit drug and spend time in jail until you can prove your innocence. Attorneys will love this new technology!!

    If all fails you can always look forward to the new breed of cosmetic surgery that will allow you to change your iris structure in case you need a new identity… 😉

  4. dander

    Wouldn’t an individual’s eye scan, finger print, etc change slowly over time? Couldn’t this information be updated every time someone used that system? So unless someone were to not use a given system for years then it wouldn’t be a problem

  5. Brian Too

    The accuracy problems are all overstated. Put in a management regime and all those can be addressed. We do it all the time with credit reports. It’s not perfect but basically it works.

    The big problems are societal. If the governments themselves cannot be trusted (I’m talking about authoritarian regimes here), then basic feedback mechanisms about how citizens can express their will to their government are fundamentally limited. Unfortunately authoritarian governments tend to view control mechanisms that would be enabled by biometrics, as ideal solutions to their problems!

    Also, this does move the bar in terms of where privacy and anonymity begins and identification ends. The bar is already moving due to the internet, but changing the expectations of citizens can take a long time. However people (mainly young people) are running towards the social networking systems.

  6. 35. Magnificent site. A lot of helpful information here. I am sending it to some buddies ans additionally sharing in delicious. And obviously, thank you to your sweat!


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