Sept. 24, 2010 Biometric systems -- designed to automatically recognize individuals based on biological and behavioral traits such as fingerprints, palm prints, or voice or face recognition -- are "inherently fallible," says a new report by the National Research Council, and no single trait has been identified that is stable and distinctive across all groups. To strengthen the science 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 N. Pato, chair of the committee that wrote the report and distinguished technologist at Hewlett-Packard's HP Laboratories, Palo Alto, Calif. "While 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."
Biometric systems are increasingly used to regulate access to facilities, information, and other rights or benefits, but questions persist about their effectiveness as security or surveillance mechanisms. The systems provide "probabilistic results," meaning that confidence in results must be tempered by an understanding of the inherent uncertainty in any given system, the report says. It notes that when the likelihood of an imposter is rare, even systems with very accurate sensors and matching capabilities can have a high false-alarm rate. This could become costly or even dangerous in systems designed to provide heightened security; for example, operators could become lax about dealing with potential threats.
The report identifies numerous sources of uncertainty in the systems that need to be considered in system design and operation. For example, biometric characteristics may vary over an individual's lifetime due to
|Contact: Molly Galvin|
National Academy of Sciences