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Forget fingerprints: Your iris is your new identity

Robert L. Mitchell | Oct. 1, 2013
Iris recognition finally seems ready to break into the mainstream.

But accuracy also depends on the integrity of the data, he cautions. While iris recognition technology doesn't require physical body contact (which is considered a plus), it does require the cooperation of the individual, and the type of system used can greatly affect accuracy. "If I take the image with a cellphone camera, the error rate will be much worse," Grother says.

Iris recognition systems need to overcome environmental issues such as reflections, bright sunlight, thick eyeglasses, colored contact lenses and eye conditions that may cause dilation or other changes in the iris. Today, "state-of-the-art iris recognition systems can deal with all of these," says Brian Martin, director of biometric research at MorphoTrust, a developer of identity verification systems in Billerica, Mass.

Functionally, iris recognition cameras aren't much different from digital SLR cameras, except that the light filters over the sensors allow near-infrared light to pass through instead of visible light, says Martin.

Iris recognition systems encode the entire eye structure, following an open standard. And because the process doesn't focus on detailed feature points, a gray-scale 640-x-480-pixel image is sufficient. That's one reason why the recognition algorithms can speedily process data and respond quickly. "The old VGA format turns out to be all you need. High resolution is not needed, and in fact would slow things down," says Grother.

Sophisticated, high-end cameras capable of capturing images at distances of two meters can cost $30,000 or more, but other models suitable for business use that operate at close range may run as little as a few hundred dollars.

EyeLock, a developer of iris recognition systems in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is designing a consumer-grade system that can be added to tablets and mobile phones at a low enough cost that it shouldn't require an increase in the price of the product, according to chief marketing officer Tony Antolino. EyeLock is a member of the Fast Identity Online Alliance, an industry consortium developing open interoperability standards for iris recognition and other biometric authentication methods for use with online services.

Can iris recognition systems be fooled? While iris recognition has generally been considered extremely secure, academic researchers have come up with scenarios under which the systems could be hacked. But Grother doubts that those scenarios would work in the real world (see "Hacking the Iris").

Banking by eye
For Kamal Al-Bakri, who as general manager at Cairo Amman Bank oversaw the installation of an iris recognition system at 80 branches and 100 ATM locations in Jordan, fraud has not been an issue. "We've done more than a million transactions since 2009 with zero fraudulent transactions," he says. The bank recently upgraded to more-accurate dual-eye readers from IrisGuard in Buckinghamshire, England, "to sustain our position as a leader" as competing banks start to use similar technology, he adds.


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