Researchers give boost to iris recognition

iris recognition

A chart from a government report on iris recognition. Credit: National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Federal researchers probing the viability of using iris recognition for official identification have found more evidence to support widespread adoption of the technique.

National Institute of Standards and Technology scientists had been concerned that aging caused frequent changes in the iris’s appearance, making it a poor means of identification. But a new report released by the institute found no significant change in the distinguishing features of the irises of thousands of travelers scanned at boarder crossings over the course of at least a decade.

Security implications

The finding presents iris-recognition technology as a realistic security option — at least from a financial and logistical point of view. If irises changed over time, frequently capturing new images would be cost-prohibitive and difficult to coordinate. Having additional proof of the iris’ stability bodes well for tech innovators and vendors who see iris recognition replacing passwords as a more secure way of accessing sensitive IT networks. In other words, logging into a device may some day only require a user to look into a camera.

Researchers didn’t collect their own evidence for this study. They instead relied largely on a massive database of anonymous images collected by NEXUS, a U.S. and Canadian program aimed at expediting border crossings of frequent air travelers. Investigators found no noticeable difference in the “distinguishing texture” of the irises when they compared program members’ initial images against those that were taken when travelers subsequently attempted to cross the border.

Motivated by skepticism

The institute launched its study after a 2012 report out of Notre Dame found that iris recognition for 217 subjects became increasingly difficult over a three-year period. The earlier finding questioned a widely held belief that irises are a strong biometric indicator because of their uniqueness and stability over time. But a separate research team later revealed that pupil dilation — not aging — was the primary cause behind the false rejection rates.

As a result of this latest research, institute scientists agreed that pupil dilation was the problem. They concluded that consistent lighting around iris-reading devices normalizes dilation and removes the variation.

NIST established the Iris Exchange (IREX) program in 2008 to quantify support for iris recognition standardization, development and deployment. The program is backed financially by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn is a journalist covering the tech beat and an adjunct professor at Montclair State University. He lives in New Jersey, where he had worked as a staff writer for several leading daily newspapers and websites.
Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn
Tags: IT Security,Technology