Thursday, December 30, 2010

Biometrics without a body - redefining biometrics?

The Empoprise-BI business blog rarely ventures into biometric discussions, but today I'm making an exception, but please note this caveat:

[The views expressed in this post are my own, and are not necessarily the views of my employer or its associated companies.]

One of my mailing lists is in serious chatter mode regarding a white paper recently released by Eurosmart, an organization that describes itself as "an international non-profit association located in Brussels representing the Voice of the Smart Security Industry for multi-sector applications." Examples of such applications include smart cards and smart USB tokens.

The white paper in question is entitled "Smart Biometrics for Trust and Convenience," and the overall theme of the paper is described in the Foreword:

Our vision has been always that personal data and especially biometric references should be stored in a smart card.

The fact that a smart card association is arguing that smart cards are good is not newsworthy. What is newsworthy is the way in which the argument is made. Here's the first paragraph of the Introduction:

The development of Biometrics is a result of political, economic and technological globalisation. The world is now a global place for trade, migrations, transfers and reliable exchanges of all kind of information and values, physically and / or remotely. This can give rise to new risks, problems, fraud, illegal traffic, identity theft or even terrorism. Biometrics is seen as the best solution for identification or authentication as it is directly linked to the person (whoever he /she is). Identity theft has been classified as the fastest growing white collar crime since the mid-1990s. For goods and documents that also need to be guaranteed as genuine or identified / authenticated, some technologies may be used that can be classified as biometrics for objects.

OK, now re-read that last sentence:

For goods and documents that also need to be guaranteed as genuine or identified / authenticated, some technologies may be used that can be classified as biometrics for objects.

Throughout the paper, reference is made to "biometrics for objects" or "object biometrics." According to section 1.2, this is one of three types of biometrics, the other two being morphological/physiological biometrics (such as fingerprints) and behavioral biometrics (such as handwriting). However, even Eurosmart's definition of morphological/physiological biometrics has an interesting wrinkle:

These biometric methods use a biological characteristic of the individual or object. For example, fingerprints, iris texture, shape of the face or hands, wood grain or even atomic minerals in the organization.

Now I have been to nearly ten years of International Association for Identification conferences, and if any IAI practitioner was ever discussing wood grain, they never referred to it as "biometrics." As you will see below, some people consider even this an extension of the traditional definition of biometrics.

Now we get to Eurosmart's "object biometrics" definition:

These are the biometric methods that reproduce a natural phenomenon for elements whose characteristics are chaotic and measurable, for example, surface states, the bubbles in the material, manufacturing defects. For instance, digital watermarking, surface aspects and bubble tags are object biometrics.

When you think about it, it's obvious why a smart card association would want to argue that elements on objects are "biometrics" that can be identified.

But what about the people who call themselves biometric practitioners today? This item in Planet Biometrics described the implications:

A popular current definition of biometrics is: "the automated recognition of individuals based on their physical or behavioural characteristics". So when Eurosmart, a leading association dealing with smart cards and smart devices, released its lengthy and quite informative white paper into biometrics, it was with some surprise when its definition of the technology now includes inanimate objects.

After quoting from the white paper, the author of the piece (Mark Lockie) wrote the following:

Planet Biometrics awaits industry reaction with interest!

And the industry is certainly reacting with interest. The mailing list that informed me of this white paper is a private list, so I cannot reprint extracts from the comments that have appeared on the list. Well, maybe I will extract one word from the comments:


Although this particular word is atypical of the conversation, it's fair to say that the commenters do not necessarily agree with Eurosmart's definition of biometrics.

To my knowledge, no one other than Eurosmart has used the term "biometrics" to describe objects. But when considering what biometrics actually IS, it should be noted that there is a general definition, and a more specific definition that is used by my industry. For example, here is how Quest Biometrics defines the general term:

Biometric definition is best explained by understanding its nomenclature.

The word "biometrics" is derived from the Greek words 'bios' and 'metric' ; which means life and measurement respectively. This directly translates into "life measurement".

General science has included biometrics as a field of statistical development since the early twentieth century. A very good example is the statistical analysis of data from agricultural field experiments comparing the yields of different varieties of wheat. In this way, science is taking a life measurement of the agriculture to ultimately determine more efficient methods of growth.

But the Quest Biometrics site doesn't have a section dedicated to wheat growth (or to wood grain, or to atomic measurements). Why not? Because it moves on to a more specific definition of biometrics:

Biometrics technologies measure a particular set of a person's vital statistics in order to determine identity.

In the most contemporary computer science applications, the term "life measurement" adapts a slightly different role. Biometrics in the high technology sector refers to a particular class of identification technologies. These technologies use an individual's unique biological traits to determine one's identity. The traits that are considered include fingerprints, retina and iris patterns,facial characteristics and many more.

Types of Biometrics

There are basically two types of biometrics:
1. Behavioral biometrics
2. Physical biometrics

These two categories correspond to the first two (of the three) categories in the Eurosmart white paper (physical = morphological/physiological), and these are the two categories that most of the biometric practitioners that I have met actually talk about. For example, for the last sixteen years I have been involved with automated fingerprint identification systems, or AFIS; fingerprints are an example of physical biometrics.

Depending upon your point of view, Eurosmart is either using an inclusive definition of biometrics that offers great benefits to the world, or it is appropriating an already well-defined term for a completely different use to enhance its legitimacy.

However, Eurosmart may want to rethink its strategy. Because if it really wants to claim that objects are biometric technologies, then Eurosmart will have Simon Cole (previously mentioned in the Empoprise-BI business blog here) and the National Academy of Sciences (previously mentioned in the Empoprise-BI business blog here) breathing down its neck, demanding scientific proof of its claims.

P.S. For me personally, the most interesting part of this attempted redefinition will be to see what the industry itself does. Why? Because the parent companies of two of the major AFIS vendors, Safran (parent company of my employer, MorphoTrak) and 3M (parent company of recently-acquired 3M Cogent Inc.) are also card manufacturers. And that's all that I'm going to say about THAT...
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