Researching Technologies to Enhance Biometric AccuracyAugust 2015
Keith Browning laughs off the "CSI Effect" of television and movies, where biometric evidence is always "instantly available and 99.9% accurate." But, in fact, he and his colleagues do spend their days researching and devising new methods for improving the accuracy of fingerprints, iris scans, voice-recognition, and other physical markers for the Departments of Defense and Justice and other government agencies.
Biometrics is the automated process of identifying people—or verifying they are who they say they are—by matching their physiological characteristics within statistical boundaries against a repository of similar data. "One of the most important characteristics of biometrics is permanence," says Browning, a specialist in the field. "While people might easily change their hair, grow or shave a beard, and change their clothing, it's very difficult to change a fingerprint or iris pattern."
There are different challenges and benefits of the different type of physical characteristics, he explains. "Fingerprints and iris scans are very accurate, but relatively difficult to get. In comparison, with data from digital cameras, social media, and surveillance it's relatively easy to get facial images—but it's difficult to get an accurate identity."
"On TV, they make the systems interoperability look so easy. In reality, it takes a lot of effort and systems engineering to make that happen." This is an area where MITRE's deep experience in data engineering helps government agencies.
From Chemistry to Biometrics
Browning spent the first 20 years of his career as a chemical engineer. But he was always interested in computers and programming. When he decided to focus on biometrics, he found math was the common element. "Pattern analysis is exactly the same whether you're looking at the peaks and valleys of spectroscopy scan of a chemical, or looking at a person's fingerprints or iris."
In 2002, he joined the DoD's Biometric Fusion Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia. He worked there for seven years, supporting numerous projects. One project required going to sea on Navy destroyers to test the feasibility of transmitting fingerprint information to satellites from the deck of a rolling ship.
The Fusion Center was also his first introduction to MITRE staff. "I learned that MITRE had a lot of smart people working on high-level national projects. I told them if they ever opened an office in Clarksburg, I wanted to work with them." In 2008, MITRE opened a Clarksburg site, and Browning joined the company. He is currently the leader for a group that provides data engineering and biometrics technology support to sponsors and MITRE personnel.
Biometrics Best Practices Cut Across the Government
"Here at MITRE, we see the environments and systems of different government agencies and the challenges they face. We share the best practices in the biometrics field so all of our sponsors can get the benefit without reinventing the wheel."
Another of Browning's roles is as a principal investigator in MITRE's biometrics research. In one of his projects, his team used a 3-D printer to create "spoof fingerprints." These fingerprints were so accurate, Browning and his team were able to test how an adversary might fool biometric-enabled security devices.
Continual Learning at MITRE
As a group leader, Browning has "a lot of fun watching some extremely smart people take on technical and challenging projects that truly make a difference." He says one of the most important factors for success in biometrics at MITRE is the self-motivation to tackle new areas.
"We've had people learn about big data, computer vision, and other machine-learning techniques to accomplish their sponsors' goals. And with MITRE's generous educational assistance program, we have people finishing degrees now at the University of Illinois and Johns Hopkins."
Browning has only good things to say about Clarksburg and its low cost of living. When not delving deep into the latest biometrics technologies, he plays tennis and enjoys going to football and basketball games at his alma mater, West Virginia University.
—by Bill Eidson