The eyes also have it

  • Anirudh Bhattacharyya, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Nov 28, 2014 23:03 IST

In the 2002 film, Minority Report, the protagonist John Anderton passes by a digital store sign and it calls out to him: “Hello Mr Yakamoto and welcome back to the GAP!”

That character, a fugitive played by Tom Cruise, obviously has no Japanese lineage. The sensors have been hoodwinked as he’s had his eyes transplanted to evade his retinas being read for identification.

That movie served up the sort of dystopian vision of the future that Hollywood regularly envisions. But the business and science of biometrics is booming and the future may already be here.

Biometrics uses physical characteristics to identify people. Its first practical application was in creating fingerprint databases, an innovation that predates the film industry. Since then, DNA samples, retina and iris scans, voice and facial recognition and other physical characteristics have been added to its basket.

We all have a little bit of ourselves in a database now. In a recent article, the Washington Post quoted Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, as saying: “The fact is that if you have a driver’s license, a passport and a Facebook account, you are likely enrolled in at least three different facial recognition databases.”

Actually, your passport will have additional information, as will an Aadhaar card, the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) is reliant upon it, giving a new spin to the term biodata. In fact, on Facebook, you’ll often be asked to tag friends in photos, whom the social network helpfully identifies. For instance, when it highlights a misshapen knee to ask, “Who is this?”

That’s not the only biometric tool that’s gloriously glitchy. Apple’s latest Touch ID or facial recognition on Android devices can go awry quicker than you can say facepalm. I once owned a laptop with fingerprint recognition. Perhaps it thought I was getting too touchy feely, but it just wouldn’t work. So, after multiple failed attempts to access my own computer, I was forced to disable that digital option and return to one that was far more analog, just letters.

But biometrics is on the cusp of a revolution that will have privacy advocates going round in circles. The latest generation of inventions digs deeper into the body. Recently, a pilot project started in Canada involving a major credit card brand and retail banks. Under that, users snap on what’s called the Nymi Band, a bracelet of sorts, that’s part of a process of authenticating identity with an electrocardiogram sensor that recognises an individual’s distinctive cardiac rhythm. The thought of ditching those interminable passwords that are expected to include capitals, alphanumeric content and special characters should get your heart racing though I’m not sure if that’ll foul up the Nymi system, created by the startup Bionym. The other biometric brain wave is exactly that, as researchers attempt to tune into your brain waves for IDing.

These developments aren’t just in North America. In China, an Australian retailer has launched Facepay. Payments are linked to accounts and processed after scanners read capillary networks on customers’ faces and hands. In Israel, the firm BioCatch is developing a “cognitive biometric signature” based on which hand a person uses, the level of their hand-eye coordination, even how much their hands may tremble.

As biometrics become the norm, there will be hacking, physical signatures siphoned off by cybercriminals. Once upon a time, ganglords and mafiosi would get new faces to evade law enforcement. In this case, there aren’t such easy solutions to fighting such an identity crisis – angioplastic surgery, anyone?

Minority Report was based on a short story by science fiction writer Philip K Dick, set in 2054. While its retina recognition may soon appear quaint, it may be futureproof when it comes to its core plot involving the mind, as the police use precognition technology to arrest those even contemplating a crime. That may not be as far-fetched as it appears. The vital signs of the next generation of biometric technology became stronger this year.

(Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs. The views expressed by the author are personal)

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