FBI’s Facial Recognition Program: Better Security Through Biometrics

The FBI is moving ahead with a nationwide facial recognition program scheduled to be fully deployed by 2014, according to New Scientist and testimony delivered to the Senate in July. The program could lead to faster, more efficient law enforcement—but…

The FBI is moving ahead with a nationwide facial recognition program scheduled to be fully deployed by 2014, according to New Scientist and testimony delivered to the Senate in July. The program could lead to faster, more efficient law enforcement—but nabbing crooks after a crime is only part of the appeal. The technology also foreshadows upcoming security enhancements that will stop many offenses before they start, including several that plague businesses.

The new tools are part of the FBI’s $1 billion Next Generation Identification (NGI) program, a surveillance initiative built around biometric data.

This data involves more than facial-recognition tools. Originally conceived to replace the bureau’s aging fingerprint identification system, NGI also employs a 10-point fingerprint matching process that is 99% accurate. Other capabilities include the ability to deduce identities from palm prints, tattoos, and potentially even DNA.

[ For more on the FBI’s biometric ID program, see FBI To Add Tattoos To Biometric ID Capabilities. ]

Some of these tools won’t be widely deployed until NGI is fully operational in summer 2014, but the facial recognition is slowly proliferating. Michigan initiated a beta rollout in February, and at least 10 additional states have either begun testing or expressed interest.

The FBI most recently disclosed details about the pilot program when the bureau’s Jerome Pender tesitfied before the Senate in July. He said that NGI’s facial recognition tools can compare a query image to a database of 12.8 million mug shots. Such a large database should facilitate easier tracking of suspects who flee across jurisdictions, and research suggests the effects could be dramatic; 2010 tests found that facial recognition tools correctly identified individuals from a pool of 1.6 million mug shots with 92% accuracy.

Newer versions could be even better. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have developed algorithms that use 3-D modeling to more accurately divine identities from faces, and Alessandro Acquisti, a professor at the university, told the Senate in July that face detection is mature enough for primetime.

Acquisti also expressed caution about the technology’s power. Civil libertarians are concerned the technology represents Big Brother as much as big data. They cite, among other things, the FBI’s suggestion that NGI could be used to track individuals within crowds. The FBI has taken steps to ensure innocent citizens are not targeted for surveillance, however; Pender told the Senate that query images obtained through social networking sites, surveillance cameras, and similar sources “are not used to populate the national repository.”

Outside the government, biometric tech has a mixed record. Facebook inadvertently triggered controversy when it integrated facial-recognition technology into its photo-tagging function. And UPEK fingerprint readers were shown in August to suffer from a vulnerability that could expose passwords.

Other developments have been more auspicious, however. Saratoga Hospital, in Saratoga Springs, NY, used biometric technology provided by DigitalPersona Inc. to more efficiently and securely verify access to confidential records. In the consumer realm, Apple’s July acquisition of fingerprint security company AuthenTec suggests biometrics may headline future iOS and OS X enhancements.

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Todd Morris—CEO of Brickhouse Security, a security and surveillance provider whose customers include the FBI—said in a phone interview that the speed of biometric adoption and advancement has basically followed Moore’s Law, with tools growing twice as powerful and half as expensive every 18 months. He noted that the newest facial-recognition systems can identify people obscured by sunglasses, hats, and windshields—challenges that would have been largely unmanageable two years ago.

“What government does trickles down to the enterprise, and then to consumers,” he said, predicting that the next two years would bring cell phones with fingerprint, iris, and facial-recognition security features. The BYOD implications of hard-to-fake, multi-factor authentication are obvious—but Morris went further, stating that devices attuned to biometric signatures could allow mobile phones to replace objects we lose every day. A key or credit card can be stolen and easily abused, for example, but criminals would have trouble exploiting a mobile application that unlocks doors or processes transactions only after verifying the user’s identity.

Morris asserted that credit card companies, which he said have “a huge issue with fraudulent charges,” could particularly benefit.

Olga Raskin, a senior consultant at IBG, wrote in an email that biometrics are in some ways more suited to enterprise environments, in which verification data is collected in controlled settings, than to law enforcement applications, where high-quality query content cannot always be procured. She said certain ease-of-use issues, such as “people with dry hands [who] often can’t produce good fingerprints,” could slow adoption, as could privacy concerns. Even so, she said, increased convenience will probably lead consumers to readily adopt at least some biometric implementations.

Mobile employees’ data and apps need protecting. Here are 10 ways to get the job done. Also in the new, all-digital 10 Steps To E-Commerce Security special issue of Dark Reading: Mobile technology is forcing businesses to rethink the fundamentals of how their networks work. (Free registration required.)

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