New Advances in Biometrics Research Move Beyond the "CSI Effect"

November 2015
Topics: Biometrics, Biosensors, Image Processing, Pattern Recognition, Information Security Technologies
Don't believe everything you see on TV. Biometrics—the science of recognizing individuals based on certain characteristics—is far more complex. MITRE both advances the science and helps government agencies adopt the right technology for their needs.
Chongeun Lee and Keith Browning discuss MITRE's biometrics research program.

For decades, MITRE has supported our federal sponsors as they plan and implement systems that rely on biometrics. If there's one thing our experience has taught us, it's this: The biometrics of countless television shows and movies isn't as easy as it looks.

Keith Browning, group leader in MITRE's Data Engineering and Biometrics department, says, "We call it the 'CSI Effect.' On TV, it happens instantly, and it's 99.9 percent accurate."

To understand the difference between "TV biometrics" and reality, let's start with a definition:  Biometrics are automated methods of recognizing an individual based on measurable biological (anatomical and physiological) and behavioral characteristics. The most common commercially available categories are face, fingerprint, and iris recognition, but additional approaches are in various stages of maturity.

For our sponsors, MITRE's biometrics work ranges from strategy, policy, acquisition, research, test and evaluation, and proof of concept to prototyping, product validation and certification, and system integration. MITRE is also helping the federal government integrate other technologies such as cyber analytics and video analytics for establishing identities.

All Types of Biometrics Are Not Created Equal

Biometrics have a number of "modalities," which makes different kinds of physical markers more useful for either identification or verification. Browning points out that biometric modalities are not all created equal. For example, fingerprints and iris biometrics are unique and highly permanent. However, they're relatively difficult for agencies to acquire, since the person must be physically present to provide a complete fingerprint or submit to an iris scan.

Conversely, agencies of all kinds find it relatively easy to gather photos for facial recognition. According to research from IBM, 90 percent of all the data in the world today was created within the last two years, much of it in the form of digital pictures and video. But facial recognition is only of a medium level of uniqueness and permanence—and it's easier to circumvent than fingerprints or iris scans.

Since 9/11, the government and industry have made vast improvements in biometrics to support federal, state, military, and intelligence community agencies with their missions. Biometrics is also well established in commercial security and increasingly available for personal use, such as in phones and computers. One MITRE team has even demonstrated how to safeguard phones using voice authentication.

A Big Picture View of an Accelerating Technology Environment

The exponential increase in computer processing power over the past two decades is an important factor in accelerating the technology.

"Government agencies give MITRE some of their toughest biometrics problems to solve," Browning says. "And since we see the environments and systems of different agencies and the challenges they face, we can share the best practices in the biometrics field. All of our sponsors can get the benefit without reinventing the wheel."

MITRE helps agencies understand the biometrics and identity spaces within the federal government, as well as within industry and academia. Agencies use this insight to develop their strategies, facilitate external outreach and collaboration, and assess their internal activities and spending plans.

One key activity is the Global Identity Summit. The summit draws 1,800 attendees from more than 30 countries and serves as the federal government’s primary outreach and collaboration-building event with the worldwide identity community. MITRE's Duane Blackburn serves as a co-chair of the Summit's planning committee, which includes representatives from the Departments of Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice. Additional members come from the White House's management team for the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, the private sector, and academia.

The Reality of Sharing Biometrics Across Agencies

In crime shows, the good guys can plug fingerprints and or iris scans into a computer that links together every agency imaginable in a comprehensive database. Inevitably, moments later the bad guy's face fills the screen. In reality, agencies often record data in slightly different ways, so their databases don't always play together well. MITRE's deep experience in biometrics allows us to help sponsors deal with such issues as identity consolidation of duplicate records and importing biometrics files based upon various specifications.

Take another tough challenge—overcoming bandwidth and file-size constraints. We've helped our sponsors with replication plans for massive amounts of data. We've also enhanced accuracy and speed in biometrics systems for our sponsors and collaborated on testing concepts with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. For our federal, military, and law enforcement sponsors, MITRE assisted with upgrading or replacing their biometrics systems and infrastructure with long-term and cost-effective planning and operational test and evaluation.

We also support federal agencies by testing commercial products for accuracy, standards adherence, and usability. Information gleaned from these activities serves as the foundation for acquisition choices and the development of operational procedures. We also share subsets of this information with the commercial providers to help them improve their products.

As for the other things you might see on television, Browning points out it's not unusual to see automated biometrics based upon frontal views of faces.

"Automated searches based just on the front view of faces usually result in a gallery of multiple candidates, not a single, individual identification. MITRE is currently exploring ways that may improve this technology significantly."

--by Bill Eidson

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