Iris Recognition for Secure Digital ID

Here’s why the biology of our irises makes them reliable, secure digital ID tools.

iris-blue-copyAfter the introduction of fingerprint scanners in mobile phones, biometrics has become a core feature of our mobile devices. Remembering, forgetting and recalling passwords is arguably one of the biggest pain points in digital lives, and biometrics is perhaps the easiest way of addressing it. There’s no need to remember something that consumers always have, such as fingers, eyes, face etc. While biometric technology based on fingerprints was the first to find widespread use, of late, building on the success of fingerprints, more mobile phones are using the iris in their latest models.

Fujitsu/NTTDOCOMO launched the world’s first mobile phone with iris recognition capability, the F-04G, in mid 2015, followed by F-02H in winter of 2015. Other mobile devices with this feature include the Lumia 950 and 950XL, HP Elite X3 (Figure 1), Fujitsu’s F-02 tablet, and the ill-fated Samsung Note 7. The reason for the interest in the iris is primarily better reliability compared to even fingerprints, as well as higher security. Both these advantages stem from the iris’s biological characteristics.

Intricate and Yours for Life

The iris is the doughnut-like structure around the pupil of the eye. A muscle, the iris controls the size of the pupil to control the amount of light that can enter the eye. Like any of our bodies’ other muscle structures, the iris has a rich and unique pattern. This unique iris pattern, as with fingerprint patterns, is what computer algorithms use to derive a unique identity for each iris and associate it with the identity of the individual.

The iris pattern is even more complex (richer) than any fingerprint pattern, so it has more information content, which translates into more entropy and a higher level of security. Think of how six-digit passcode security compares to four-digit passcode security. The iris gets its color from a pigment called melanin, and this pigment has a different color for different people. The iris is formed even before a baby is formed during the gestation period and remains the same for life. As an internal organ, the iris is completely covered by a transparent layer called cornea, a feature which makes the iris a more stable and reliable biometric modality.

Figure 1: The HP Elite x3 has an integrated iris scanner. [Source: Maurizio Pesce, Milan, Italy]

Figure 1: The HP Elite x3 has an integrated iris scanner. (Source: Maurizio Pesce, Milan, Italy)

Overcoming Challenges

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has created the world’s largest biometric based citizen and resident authentication system based on the iris. During its initial pilot studies the UDAI verified:

  • The iris does not get worn out with age, or with use.
  • Weather changes do not affect Iris authentication.
  • Iris image capture does not require physical contact. Capturing the iris image is physically similar to the familiar practice of taking photographs.
  • Iris capture requires simple instructions such as, “Look at the camera; keep your eyes wide open.”
  • A fake iris is difficult to synthesize, making impersonation harder
  • The Iris image cannot be captured without the individual’s cooperation
  • The spread of low-cost consumer cameras has aided iris camera costs and manufacturing.

While these pilots and subsequent tests done by UIDAI have confirmed the advantages of the iris, early adopters of iris-enabled mobile phones have also reported some problems:

  • Difficult use under direct sunlight
  • Difficulty detecting the iris when using certain kinds of glasses
  • Difficulty detecting the iris while the user is moving

Despite these problems, iris biometric technology is favored over fingerprint biometric technology, which is being found to be unreliable depending on the individual’s age, occupation and other external conditions. Many young people have soft skins with wrinkles that affect scanning, and older people tend to have dry and brittle skin that does not have the appropriate contact for scanning. People involved in manual labor such as construction workers and farmers end up damaging their fingerprints. Additionally, fingerprints are easily left behind on devices and other objects we touch, which can make it easier for sophisticated adversaries to steal them.

One company which is taking on some of the challenges associated with iris biometric technology is Delta ID. The company’s AvtiveIRIS® technology includes advanced algorithms to compensate for these challenges and provide users with an easy to use, secure iris recognition system that can work for mobile users across age groups, occupations, and usage conditions. The Delta ID ActiveIRIS software compensates for the motion blur that is introduced when the user is moving, occlusion of the eye by the eye lashes under direct sunlight or by reflections on the glasses, and many more usage scenarios.

Research and Markets predicts the global iris recognition in access control market (authentication, biometrics, cards, touch screens) to grow at a CAGR of 18.09% during the period 2016-2020[1].

Figure 2: “Unlike fingerprints, the iris-enabled identification can be touchless and seamless, adding to the in-cabin experience.”

Figure 2: “Unlike fingerprints, the iris-enabled identification can be touchless and seamless, adding to the in-cabin experience.”

The higher security and reliability of the iris has significant appeal to multiple applications and services spanning multiple vertical markets. On mobile devices one of the primary adopters of biometrics has been for mobile payments and banking. The success of mobile enabled financial applications hinges on the usability and security of the biometric modality used for authentication. Performing better than fingerprints on both those fronts, iris biometric technology is expected to see more and more adoption in the near future. In the automotive sector, we’re seeing interest in iris biometric technology for driver identification and driver monitoring. Unlike fingerprints, the iris-enabled identification can be touchless and seamless, adding to the in-cabin experience (Figure 2). Driver identification can then be used for multiple use cases—in-cabin customization, security, pay-as-you-go insurance plans, auto enabled payments—and at gas stations, parking lots, drive through restaurants, and more.

The applications of this technology can be endless once consumers recognize the superior user experience and security.

Salil_PrabhakarDr. Salil Prabhakar is President and CEO of Delta ID Inc., a California technology company he co-founded in 2011.

He is an expert in the area of biometric fingerprint and iris scanning technology. Dr. Prabhakar has co-authored 50+ publications (14,000+ Google Citations), two editions of the award-winning Handbook of Fingerprint Recognition, five book chapters, and eight edited proceedings. He has several patents granted and pending. He has served as an Associate editor of IEEE Trans. on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence, SPIE Journal of Electronic Imaging, EURASIP Journal of Image and Video Processing, Elsevier Pattern Recognition, and Current Bioinformatics. He was lead guest co-editor of April 2007 IEEE Transactions of Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence Biometrics Special Issue. He has been a co-chair/program chair for 10+ IEEE, IAPR and SPIE conferences, was general co-chair of the 5th International Conference on Biometrics in 2012 in New Delhi. He was VP Finance of IEEE Biometrics Council during 2010-2012.


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