Biometrics had a boom after 9/11. Gobs of government money poured into face and iris recognition systems; the Pentagon alone spent nearly $3 billion in five years, and the Defense Department was only one of many federal agencies funneling cash in the technologies. Civil libertarians feared the worst as face-spotters were turned on crowds of citizens in the hopes of catching a single crook.
But while the technologies proved helpful in verifying identities at entry points from Iraq to international airports, the hype or panic surrounding biometrics never quite panned out. Even after all that investment, scanners still arent particularly good at finding a particular face in the crowd, for example; variable lighting conditions and angles (not to mention hats) continue to confound the systems.
Eventually, the biometrics market and the government enthusiasm for it cooled off. The technological development has not. Corporate and academic labs are continuing to find new ways to ID people with more accuracy, and from further away. Here are 11 projects.
My, what noticeable ears you have. So noticeable in fact that researchers are exploring ways to detect the ears features like they were fingerprints. In 2010, a group of British researchers used a process called image ray transform to shoot light rays at human ears, and then repeat an algorithm to draw an image of the tubular-shaped parts of the organ. The curved edges around the rim of the ear is a characteristic and most obvious example. Then, the researchers converted the images into a series of numbers marking the image as your own. Finally, its just a matter of a machine scanning your ears again, and matching it up to whats already stored in the system, which the researchers were able to do accurately 99.6 percent of the time. In March of 2012, a pair of New Delhi scientists also tried scanning ears using Gabor filters a kind of digital image processor similar to human vision but were accurate to a mere 92 to 96.9 percent, according to a recent survey (pdf) of ear biometric research.
It may even be possible to develop ear-scanning in a way that makes it more reliable than fingerprints. The reason is because your fingerprints can callous over when doing a lot of hard work. But ears, by and large, dont change much over the course of a lifespan. Theres a debate around this, however, and fingerprinting has a much longer and established history behind it. A big question is whether ear-scanning will work given different amounts of light, or when covered (even partially) by hair or jewelry. But if ear-scanners get to the point of being practical, then they could possibly work alongside fingerprinting instead of replacing them. Maybe in the future well see more extreme ear modification come along as a counter-measure.
In the early and mid-2000s, the Pentagons blue-sky researchers at Darpa dabbled in something called the Unique Signature Detection Project, which sought to explore ways to detect people by their scent, and maybe even spot and identify individuals based on their distinct smells. Darpas work ended in 2008. The following year, the Department of Homeland Security fielded a solicitation for research in ways that human scent can indicate whether someone might be engaging in deception, specifically at airports and other ports of entry.
Odor detection is still just a research project at the moment. The science is intricate, involving more than 300 chemical compounds that produce human odor. Our personal stinks can change depending on everything from what we eat to our environment. But it may be possible to distinguish our primary odor separate from secondary odors based on our diet and tertiary odors based on things like soaps and shampoos. The primary odor is the one linked to our genetics, and there have already been experiments with mice, which have been found to produce distinct scents unique to individuals. In 2007, the governments counter-terror Technical Support Working Group even started a program aimed at collecting and storing human odors for the militarys dog handlers. Dogs, of course, have been used to track people by smell for decades, and are believed to distinguish between humans based on our genetic markers.
Your chest moves, just a little, every time your heart beats or your lungs take in air. For years, researchers have been monkeying with radars that are sensitive enough to to detect those minuscule chest movements but powerful enough to do it from hundreds of yards away. Even reinforced concrete walls and electromagnetic shielding wont stop these radars, or so claim the researchers at the small, Arizona-based defense contractor VAWD Engineering, who are working on such a system for Darpas Biometrics-at-a-distance program.
The key is the Doppler Effect the changes in frequency when one object moves relative to another. We hear it all the time, when a fire engine passes by, siren blaring. VAWD says their vehicle-mounted Sense Through Obstruction Remote Monitoring System (STORMS) can pick up even small fluctuations of chests.
STORM can be used to detect, classify and identify the specific cardiac and pulmonary modulations of a… person of interest, a company document boasts. By itself, a heartbeat or a breathing rate wont serve as a definitive biometric. But combine it with soft biometrics (how someone subtly sways when he or she stands) and youve got a unique signature for that person that cant be hidden or covered up.
VAWD says these signature will help improve disaster relief and medical care by providing a reliable, real time medical status equal to or better than the current devices, while increasing the mobility and comfort of the patient.
But the company also notes that its system performs automated human life-form target tracking even when construction materials like Afghan mud-huts are in the way. STORM has already been deployed by the United States Army on one of its most advanced ground vehicles, the company adds.
Does any of that sound like hospital work to you?
Most people are likely to be familiar with voice readers on gadgets like the iPhone. But what if there was software that could quickly analyze the voice of thousands, and even use those voices to identify specific people?
Russian biometrics firm Speech Technology Center known as SpeechPro in the U.S. has the technology. Called VoiceGrid, the system is able to automatically recognize a persons voice as their own, provided your voice is pre-recorded in a database and can be recalled by the computer. The company has also developed a version for large city, county, state or national system deployments.
Its seen use in Mexico, according to Slate, where it is being used by law enforcement to collect, store, and search hundreds of thousands of voice-prints. The National Security Agency has taken interest in similar technology. So has the FBI. A 2012 presentation from the National Institute of Standards and Technology with the assistance of the FBI also speculated on potential uses including identifying and clearing people involved in illegal activities, locating serial killers and identifying arms traffickers(.pdf). Iarpa, the intelligence communitys research agency, has also been looking into ways to solve some of its problems: audio interference mainly. In 2011, the agency concluded its Biometric Exploitation Science and Technology Program (or BEST), which made speaker recognition advances which included improving robustness to noise, reverberation, and vocal effort, and by automatically detecting these conditions in audio channels, spokesperson Schira Madan told Danger Room in an email. But we wonder if itll detect autotune.
Imagine a scanner than can look deep inside your eye from 10 feet away. Actually, you dont have to think that hard. The technology is already here. Scanners have been developed that can focus in and scan irises from a distance of 10 feet, such the IOM PassPort, developed by government contractor SRI International. The company promises the machine can scan irises at a rate of 30 people per minute like in high-traffic areas such as airports and train stations. SRI also claims it can see through contact lenses and glasses.
But the longer-range scanners could also see other uses, aside from airports. U.S. troops field existing, short-range and handheld iris scanners to build databases of Afghan eyes as part of a plan to use biometric data to tell civilians apart from insurgents. The Department of Homeland Security has tested iris scanners at a Border Patrol station along the Texas-Mexico border. The FBI has been working on an iris database for federal prisoners, and Google uses them at company data centers. But these systems can be fussy, and require that the targets dont move too much.
There might be another way. The Pentagons scientists at Darpa have funded a research project at Southern Methodist University to develop cameras that can automatically zoom-in and scan irises, kinda like what happened to Tom Cruise in Minority Report and without being blocked by pesky obstructions like eyelashes and glare from light. But another problem is that iris scanners are not the most secure means of identifying people. In July 2012, a group of researchers from the U.S. and Spain discovered a way to spoof the scanners by duplicating iris images stored in databases and creating synthetic copies. That means someone could conceivably steal your eyes, in a way.
Spotting someone by their irises is one of the best-developed biometric techniques there is. But Savvides and his Carnegie Mellon colleagues think there may be an equally-promising approach in the area around the eye also known as the periocular region.
The periocular region has the most dense and the most complex biomedical features on human face, e.g. contour, eyelids, eyeball, eyebrow, etc., which could all vary in shape, size and color, they wrote in a 2011 paper. (.pdf) Biologically and genetically speaking, a more complex structure means more coding processing going on with fetal development, and therefore more proteins and genes involved in the determination of appearance. That is why the periocular region should be the most important facial area for distinguishing people.
And unlike other biometrics the face, for instance the periocular region stays remarkably stable as a person ages. The shape and location of eyes remain largely unchanged while the mouth, nose, chin, cheek, etc., are more susceptible to changes given a loosened skin, the researchers note. In other words, this is a marker for life.
Nearby, Savvides and his colleagues think theyve found a second biometric: the shape of the eyebrow. Face-scanners are sometimes thrown off when people smile or frown. But the eyebrow shape is particularly resilient to certain (but not all) expression variations, the researchers note in a separate, yet-to-be-published paper. And the eyebrow can still be seen, even when the subject has most of his or her face covered.
Whats not fully clear is how the eyebrow biometric responds to threading, shaving or waxing. Saavides, who responded to tons of questions about his research, says theres no fullproof means to avoid this kind of spoofing. But Saavides is also working on sensors that can analyze multiple facial cues and features, while incorporating algorithms that detect the possibility of a person changing one or two of them. A pair of plucked eyebrows might be a weak match compared to the bushy ones the computer has on file but the computer could also be smart enough to recognize theyve been plucked.