The biometric citizen

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Biometrics has recently entered the commercial marketplace but it has a relatively long history of use by governments worldwide not only to lower security risks, control waste, and mitigate fraud and abuse, but also to improve delivery of goods and services to their citizens.

The focus on strong personal identification is the best and only means of achieving these objectives. At the end of the day, whether the application is border control, voter registration or benefit disbursement, knowing “who” is at the very heart of any viable government authentication solution, and biometrics is the key.

National ID cards

Governments have a vested interest in knowing who is being issued a driver’s license, new passport or identity book, or even who is receiving government pensions and welfare, and they are increasingly turning to biometrics for the answer. In fact, here in South Africa, the Department of Home Affairs aims to issue more than 2.2 million smart ID cards this year, as it steps up its modernisation plans¹. In addition, South African citizens will be able to circumvent departmental queues when applying for the new cards at bank branches as the issuance of smart-card identity documents, which includes biometric fingerprints, has recently been streamlined and expanded².

The sheer scale of these public-sector programs has special implications for the chosen authentication solution. For example, the national ID program in India (UID) seeks to assign a unique biometric credential to over one billion people. While South Africa does not require that large of an implementation, the solution still must be accurate and secure when used by a large and diverse population. Additionally it must be unique, difficult to copy, and easy to use to facilitate convenient transactions while protecting the citizen from identity fraud.

The scale of government projects magnifies even a small error rate into significant numbers which makes the reliability of the biometric technology a critical factor, especially in unattended environments.  In conditions such as those found in Indian rural environments, the failure to enrol on conventional fingerprint sensors can easily exceed 20%. Recently in Nigeria, voters were asked to cleanse their hands in laundry detergent before voting just to ensure the fingerprints were clean enough to be captured properly.

However, multispectral imaging is a sophisticated technology specifically developed to overcome the fingerprint-capture problems that have plagued conventional fingerprint sensors when they are used in less-than-ideal conditions. This more-effective technology is based on the use of multiple spectrums of light and advanced polarization techniques to extract unique fingerprint characteristics from both the surface and subsurface of the skin. Subsurface capability is important because the fingerprint ridges seen on the surface of the finger have their foundation beneath the surface of the skin, in the capillary beds and other sub-dermal structures. Unlike surface fingerprint characteristics, which can be obscured during imaging by moisture, dirt or wear, the “inner fingerprint” lies undisturbed and unaltered beneath the surface. When surface fingerprint information is combined with subsurface fingerprint information and reassembled in an intelligent and integrated manner, the results are more consistent, more inclusive and more tamper resistant.

Benefit disbursement

Governments around the world provide direct benefits to citizens in education, healthcare, pension schemes, employment, food rations and financial inclusion. How can the program administrators be certain that the goods and services are reaching the intended recipients? What percentage of goods is being diverted to enrich corrupt local officials? Administrators must be able to know who is receiving the goods and services — and only biometrics can verify the identity of recipients with certainty.

A large and diverse citizen population, such as found in South Africa, further intensifies the need for a reliable and easy to use system. A successful fingerprint authentication solution must take this into account. Multispectral imaging was specifically designed for “real world” conditions, making allowances for dry skin, worn fingerprint features as a result of age or labour, or even daily city grime that can interfere with other technologies’ ability to properly verify a citizen’s identity.

Across borders

The security case for using biometrics at international borders is well established: states have a clear interest in controlling who enters the country. Some border crossings are so busy, however, that it might seem that moving people through quickly is a competing priority. Hong Kong Immigration solved that problem by deploying multispectral fingerprint biometrics. The technology alleviates long processing delays while reliably authenticating 250,000 – 400,000 visitors every day while preventing fraudulent fingerprints (spoofs).   It’s an extraordinary achievement that’s becoming commonplace in other sectors.

The operational conditions and heavy duty cycles required by many e-border applications demand a sensor that is robust, durable, and tamper resistant. The devices and software selected must be capable of successfully collecting a usable image under a very wide range of environmental and human conditions.

Renewed focus on identity

Identity has been a core social and political issue since before South Africa became a democracy over two decades ago.  Unfortunately, the South African ID book has become one of the easiest to forge in the world due to its lack of security features. The new South African SmartID card places a renewed focus on the protection of individual identity with the inclusion of fingerprint biometric data contained within the card itself. The ability to securely validate an individual’s identity for a myriad of government and commercial applications with a trusted, convenient, simple to use card combined with a reliable fingerprint and card reader is becoming a reality today.




Greg Sarrail


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Issue 68