Bobby Varma Jun 22, 2021 1:05:13 PM 9 min read

When It Comes to World-Class Competition, Here’s Why the Iris Wins Gold as a Biometric Modality

Much fanfare surrounded the announcement several years ago that the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo would use facial recognition to speed up entry lines at game facilities for the more than 300,000 athletes and workers in attendance. Now, as the games finally approach in their 2021 iteration, the technology will also help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by monitoring fans’ mask usage, assisting with temperature screening, and allowing for purchases at shops. The system is touted as highly accurate – correctly recognizing faces 99.7 percent of the time – and capable of processing as many as 24 people per minute. With stats like that, it’s no wonder that Olympic organizers are confident in the technology’s ability to streamline operations, create more secure venues, and enforce health safety protocols.


The Olympics isn’t the only world-class athletic event incorporating face biometrics into its security strategy. Organizers of the 2022 World Cup, which will be held in Qatar, also have high expectations for the technology. Qatar’s Ministry of Interior is working closely with FIFA to build upon the country’s existing biometric database to enhance security for athletes, spectators, and workers while creating a better visitor experience.


Facial recognition technology has improved dramatically in recent years, thanks to new algorithms that use AI and machine learning that reduce the frequency of false matches. That’s why we see increasing use of facial in mainstream applications, from unlocking newer model iPhones to widespread deployment at airport e-gates throughout the EU. It was also making inroads at U.S. airports to speed up security and boarding before COVID-19 put a temporary crimp in air travel.


Limitations of Facial

For all the capabilities and conveniences these applications deliver, they are just the tip-of-the-iceberg in terms of where biometrics are headed. In each of these examples, facial recognition is being used to validate credentials – be it an Olympic badge, a passport, or a matching facial image within the iPhone. The system is confirming that the person holding the credential is who he or she claims to be. To do this, it performs a one-to-one match between the subject’s face and the image contained within his or her credential.


The next generation of biometric applications will eliminate the need for credentials. These will be systems based upon biometric signatures so unique that operators and the public will feel fully confident in their accuracy, even when matching against enormous populations. Such solutions will provide the gateway to societies that are largely badge-less, card-less, and keyless.


The face is not a suitable modality for these applications. While it has very high accuracy when performing one-to-one matching, its accuracy drops precipitously when matching against very large databases. If the Olympics or World Cup were to do away with badges and attempt to match the faces of each subject passing through entry gates against databases with hundreds of thousands of photographs, the accuracy would not be acceptable.


Even when matching against smaller databases, facial has limitations. Facial recognition algorithms have been shown to have more difficulty processing darker skin and discerning between individuals from ethnically homogenous populations where there’s less diversity in facial features.


And, of course, our faces change naturally due to aging, weight fluctuations, health, and environmental factors. Credential-less solutions are best based upon a highly stable modality that remains constant over time. The possibility that your biometric signature might one day stop identifying you as you, when it’s tied to all sorts of critical daily functions from making purchases to unlocking your front door, is reason enough to rule out the face as a practical modality for credential-less applications.


The Future is Iris

The move toward a society where daily transactions are verified by nothing more than a quick iris scan is not science fiction fantasy.


Pre-COVID, several professional sports teams introduced CLEAR security kiosks (just like at TSA checkpoints) at their venues as a convenience to their fans. Regular ticket holders who enrolled in the system could fast-track their entry just by looking into an iris scanner and having their bags checks.


On a much grander scale, the entire country of India is currently registering its 1.3 billion people into the world’s largest biometric identity database that links each resident’s fingerprints and iris signature to a unique, 12-digit ID number. In a country where much of the population lives in poverty, without a bank account or driver’s license, the program provides a means to easily authenticate the identity of individuals as they engage in a wide range of transactions, from navigating the federal bureaucracy to purchasing products and services. Individuals in the Aadhaar database will no longer have to carry around and present an array of paperwork to receive welfare benefits, buy train or plane tickets, open a mobile phone account, or vote. 9 out of 10 Indians have already registered in the system.


The iris is an ideal biometric for use in such a wide-scale deployment. It is both highly unique and stable, remaining constant throughout a person’s entire adult lifetime. Reading it is fast and touchless, making it sanitary, unobtrusive, and convenient. Masks need not be removed. In cultures where modesty norms keep much of the body covered, the eyes are always accessible. And, its accuracy remains constant even among populations with less ethnic diversity.


In fact, the only solutions more secure than iris are multimodal – like iris and face or iris and fingerprint. Multimodal systems also offer the flexibility to accommodate subjects for whom one of the modes can’t be used. For example, at Dubai International Airport, a combination of iris and facial is used to speed up security and border screenings. But, for women wearing a burka or niqab that covers their face, the iris recognition technology, alone, is enough to verify their identity.


The combination of multiple modalities has proven so effective that at some highly secure military sites, the U.S. Department of Defense makes use of a unique, multimodal solution that combines fingerprints, face and iris at entry checkpoints. No physical credentials, like a badge or ID card, are necessary. Provided a person is registered within the system’s database, he or she just walks through the scanning equipment, is immediately identified, and permitted or denied entry.


This is the future of biometrics: where cards, badges, and keys are obsolete, and our identity is authenticated by wholly unique biometric signatures that are always with us and safe from imposters. These solutions will bring conveniences and security to our daily lives in innumerable ways, simplifying everything from retail to healthcare, banking to travel.
Yes, the use of biometrics at the 2021 Olympics and the 2022 World Cup represent important milestones, bringing biometric technology ever more into the mainstream. But they’re just the “opening ceremonies” for a category of solutions destined to become a societal game changer.

Bobby Varma

Bobby Varma is the CEO of Princeton Identity.