Forget fingerprints: Your iris is your new identity

Iris recognition finally seems ready to break into the mainstream.

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Until relatively recently, iris recognition systems were mostly deployed by governments, not by businesses, partly because they're so expensive. The largest use of iris recognition today is the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) project. That initiative, recently recognized by the Computerworld Honors Program, includes iris recognition as part of a national ID system designed to help provide social services for 400 million citizens.

The technology is now making its way to the consumer end of the spectrum. "The use of iris recognition in mobile phones is expected to see a considerable uptake," Ravi says.

AOptix Technologies, a Campbell, Calif.-based maker of identity verification systems, recently released a software development kit for biometric identification technologies for Apple's iOS mobile operating system. That move, combined with the introduction of fingerprint biometrics in the new iPhone 5S and rumors of a biometric application for Google Glass, will serve to increase interest in all biometrics, including iris recognition, says Nandini Bhattacharya, a senior research analyst at Frost & Sullivan. "Apple, AOptix and Google Glass are just the beginning of this trend. Other mobile manufacturers are likely to soon follow," she says.

The FBI is on the cusp of adding iris images to its database of criminal fingerprints. As part of it Next Generation Identification (NGI) project, which is gradually modernizing the aging Integrated Automated Fingerprint ID System, the agency plans to launch a pilot next summer that could lead to the creation of a nationwide iris identity database for tracking criminals.

Under the lid

Unlike the retina scans you see in the movies, which shine a bright light through the pupil to capture images of blood vessel patterns at the back of the eye, iris recognition uses a camera to take a photograph of the iris -- the colored portion of the eye.

During fetal development, the eye goes through a process called chaotic morphogenesis that gives each iris its unique appearance. "When the optic nerve comes out of the brain, it essentially pumps out the eyeball, which rips and tears. Striations in the iris are the result of that," says Neil Norman, founder of Human Recognition Systems (HRS) in Liverpool, England.

Iris recognition systems are extremely accurate; they're 100,000 times less likely to produce a false match than facial recognition systems, Grother says. Other benefits: the matching process is very fast and, unlike faces, the eye doesn't change much with age.

NIST iris
The image at left shows the iris image as captured by the camera. At right is the processed image, which a commercial system stores for future matching. Source: NIST.

NIST recently completed a study on the subject of iris recognition. While face photos on passports are generally replaced every five or 10 years, "the iris is good for decades," Grother says. And because each eye has a unique pattern, vendors offer dual-eye systems, such as the one used in Symantec's Vault, for even higher accuracy. "Ten fingerprints are the gold standard for identification. A pair of irises are at least equivalent to eight or 10 fingers, and maybe more," Grother says.

But accuracy also depends on the integrity of the data, he cautions. While iris recognition technology doesn't require physical body contact (which is considered a plus), it does require the cooperation of the individual, and the type of system used can greatly affect accuracy. "If I take the image with a cellphone camera, the error rate will be much worse," Grother says.

Iris recognition systems need to overcome environmental issues such as reflections, bright sunlight, thick eyeglasses, colored contact lenses and eye conditions that may cause dilation or other changes in the iris. Today, "state-of-the-art iris recognition systems can deal with all of these," says Brian Martin, director of biometric research at MorphoTrust, a developer of identity verification systems in Billerica, Mass.

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