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Biometric ID technologies are 'inherently fallible' says report

28 September 2010

A report just published claims that biometric ID technology –- which is regarded by many as a highly secure form of authentication – is "inherently fallible."

The damning research comes from the National Research Council (NRC) in the US, which notes that no single trait has been identified that is stable and distinctive across all the various categories of biometrics – including fingerprints, palmprints, voice recognition and facial recognition.

According to the NRC, in order to strengthen the science of biometrics and improve system effectiveness, additional research is needed at virtually all levels of design and operation.

"For nearly 50 years, the promise of biometrics has outpaced the application of the technology", said Joseph Pato, chair of the committee that wrote the report and a technologist with HP Labs in Palo Alto.

Pato added that, whilst some biometric systems can be effective for specific tasks, they are not nearly as infallible as their depiction in popular culture might suggest.

"Bolstering the science is essential to gain a complete understanding of the strengths and limitations of these systems", he explained.

The in-depth report notes that biometric systems provide "probabilistic results", meaning that any confidence in the results must be tempered by an understanding of the inherent uncertainty in any given system.

The study also identifies numerous sources of uncertainty in the systems that need to be considered in system design and operation.

For example, says the report, biometric characteristics may vary over an individual's lifetime due to age, stress, disease, or other factors.

Furthermore, it adds, technical issues regarding calibration of sensors, degradation of data, and security breaches also contribute to variability in these systems.

The study was far from lightweight or sensationalist, Infosecurity notes, and was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security.

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