Thursday, May 08, 2008

Genealogy of a biometrics company in pole position for ID card scheme

The company in pole position to get major contracts on the UK government's ID card fiasco has a chequered history according to David Moss over at Ideal Government. I hope he doesn't mind me quoting him in full:

"Once upon a time, there was a company called Visionics Corp. Visionics specialised in biometrics based on facial geometry. Their product, FaceIt, could compare the image of someone’s face, caught on camera, with a database of stored images, at the rate of four million per minute, and identify that person whether or not he or she had grown a beard, started to wear glasses, gone bald, been photographed at an angle in poor light, etc ... At least, that’s what it said on the Visionics website.

The Visionics website is no longer available.

According to The Times, whereas Visionics claimed 99.3% accuracy, when it was tested independently FaceIt actually managed to identify people only 51% of the time. That was in November 2003. A year earlier, the New Scientist reported the experience of Palm Beach International Airport in Florida when they tried to use FaceIt to clear recognised staff through security. It worked 47% of the time. The airport would have done better to toss a coin.

The same New Scientist article records also that, back in 1998, FaceIt was used in the London Borough of Newham to match images of people, caught by CCTV cameras in the street, to a database of known villains. FaceIt drove crime off the streets of Newham, it said on the now defunct Visionics website. That’s not how the New Scientist tells it: “the police admitted to The Guardian newspaper that the Newham system had never even matched the face of a person on the street to a photo in its database of known offenders, let alone led to an arrest”.

What with one thing and another, Visionics Corp. disappeared into Identix, Inc., a biometrics company specialising in fingerprinting. And when Atos Origin organised the consortium to conduct the UKPS biometrics enrolment trial in 2004, guess who they chose to supply the facial geometry and fingerprinting systems.

This time, FaceIt failed 31% of the time, with able-bodied participants in the trial, and 52% of the time with disabled participants, i.e. it was wrong more often than it was right. And the Identix fingerprinting system failed 19% of the time with the able-bodied and 20% with the disabled.

The UKPS (now IPS) trial tested not only facial geometry and fingerprinting biometrics, but also iris scanning. 10% of able-bodied participants could not even register their iris scan in the first place, using the system supplied by Iridian, let alone be subsequently matched/identified. For the disabled, that figure rose to 39%. In a national identity scheme based on iris scans, these people wouldn’t even exist, they would have no electronic identity.

In December 2005, DVLA appointed Viisage, another facial geometry biometrics specialist, to conduct a trial to see if their collection of photographs could be used to automate driver identification. The answer seems to be no and nothing came of it.

Except that Viisage then merged with Identix, Inc., to form ... L-1 Identity Solutions, Inc.. And L-1 Identity Solutions, Inc. subsequently completed the family when it bought ... Iridian.

With its vital statistics of 51-47-31-52-19-20-10-39, L-1 Identity Solutions, Inc. is described by the FT as being in “pole position” to win the biometrics contract for the National Identity Scheme, a scheme on which the nation’s security could one day depend.

And they all lived biometrically ever after.

Question: why did the Prime Minister say, as he did on 17 January 2008, that biometrics “will make it possible to securely link an individual to a unique identity”?"


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