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Biometrics: Identifying Friend or Foe (+$2 million)

photo of face recognition system

NIST is managing the Face Recognition Grand Challenge, which aims to reduce errors in face recognition systems.

photo © Robert Rathe

Problem/Challenge

Hundreds of millions of people enter the United States every year at the nation's borders and other points of entry. To protect the country against terrorist and other threats, it is vital that known or suspected terrorists and people with terrorist ties be intercepted before they enter the country. It also is important that these security efforts ensure a speedy and smooth flow of international visitors at entry checkpoints. Accurate, reliable biometric technologies—automated tools that identify people on the basis of physical or behavioral characteristics—are crucial to achieving both of these objectives.

NIST has decades of experience improving human identification systems and currently is working with other federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the U.S. Department of State, to evaluate and improve the ability of biometrics to enhance border security. The USA Patriot Act and the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act call for NIST to develop and certify a technology standard for verifying the identity of individuals and to determine the accuracy of biometric technologies, including fingerprints, facial recognition, and iris recognition.

Biometrics technologies, primarily fingerprints, are being used broadly in the United States for border security. New technologies under development, in particular, multimodal systems that combine two or more biometric technologies such as fingerprint, facial, and iris, promise to bring significant improvements. Facial and iris recognition is less obtrusive than using fingerprints and, therefore, more accepted by the general public. But NIST studies have shown that the accuracy of today’s facial recognition systems is relatively poor compared to fingerprints and iris recognition needs more study and testing to determine its accuracy in operational environments.

In conjunction with several other federal agencies, including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, private industry, and universities, NIST is managing the Face Recognition Grand Challenge, which aims to reduce errors in face recognition systems.

Also, NIST recently began the first large-scale evaluation of iris recognition to promote its development and advancement and to assess the technology’s current level of performance.

Proposed NIST Program

With additional funding, NIST will develop: (1) tests to determine the accuracy of multimodal systems; (2) image quality standards and standard measurement techniques to improve the accuracy and interoperability of facial recognition systems used for border security; (3) tests to determine the image quality of live-scan fingerprint equipment; and (4) tests and guidelines to assure that future biometric systems are interoperable and work in realistic environments. NIST will coordinate this work with other government agencies and the private sector while taking international standards developments into account.

Expected Impacts

This effort will smooth the flow of international travelers at border checkpoints by increasing the accuracy as well as the efficiency, speed, and usability of biometrics for border security.