A study argues that there is too much uncertainty in biometrics to predict how well the technology will perform in the real world, much less support investment in this technology
Three scholars who have provided the academic foundation for the biometrics industry, particularly in the Western world, say that the level of uncertainty in biometrics is so great that tests prove nothing.
The academicians have, in a paper titled "Fundamental issues in biometric performance testing: A modern statistical and philosophical framework for uncertainty assessment", argued that the level of uncertainty in biometrics is so great that they cannot be used to predict how well the technology will perform in the real world and therefore this cannot support a valid argument for investment in biometrics.
The academicians are James L Wayman from San José State University, Antonio Possolo, head of the statistical engineering division at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and Anthony J Mansfield from UK National Physical Laboratory, all recognised as stalwarts of the biometrics industry.
However, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which has embarked on a tagging programme that is based on biometrics, is silent on the report. The institution has, till now, been quick to associate with other academic groups.
While UIDAI claims that biometrics will allow it to deliver a unique identification, it has goofed up its own test results while pushing its ambitious Aadhaar project. (Read, 'How UIDAI goofed up pilot test results to press forward with UID scheme'.)
Since its inception, UIDAI has tried to force the use of biometrics for the UID number as the ultimate solution. UIDAI conducted a proof of the concept trial of the Aadhaar project between March and June 2010. The results of the concept trial, or scenario test, suggest that biometrics cannot be reliable and may encounter huge problems while dealing with false positives.
David Moss, who spent eight years campaigning against the UK's National ID (NID) card scheme, sees hard times ahead for the global mass consumer biometrics industry. He said, "Not only has the industry lost its academic support, but governments are starting to abandon ship. President Obama's plans for trusted identity on the web make no mention of biometrics. The same goes for the UK's plans for identity assurance, in which case also there is no mention of relying on biometrics at all."
"The superstitious belief in mass consumer biometrics is like an illness, it's like the tulip mania that affected Holland in the 17th century. And now, perhaps, it is passing. Even in Holland, where they announced last month that they have suspended their plans to develop a centralised population register recording every person's biometrics," Mr Moss said.
There are three types of tests used for biometrics. One is the lab or technology test; the other is the operational or field test; and the third is a scenario test. A biometrics technology test is conducted in the lab and is entirely computer-based. An operational test is conducted in the field, in the real world, with the biometrics package coming under attack from different, unpredictable sets. In a scenario test, researchers recruit a putatively representative sample of the population so that they can test the biometrics packages with real people under still fairly controllable conditions. The UIDAI used the scenario test for UID.
On the scenario test, the three academicians write, "The test repeatability and reproducibility observed in technology tests are lost in scenario testing due to the loss of statistical control over a wide range of influence quantities. Our inability to apply concepts of statistical control to any or all of these factors will increase the level of uncertainty in our results and translate to loss of both repeatability and reproducibility. Test data from scenario evaluations should not be used as input to mathematical models of operational environments that require high levels of certainty for validity."
This exactly is the reason why governments across the globe are not emphasising on biometrics anymore. Last year, the newly-elected government in the UK scrapped the National ID programme citing huge costs, impracticality and ungovernable breaches of privacy associated with the programme. Last month, the US released its 'National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace' signed by president Obama and nowhere has the 45-page document used the word 'biometrics'.
Also in April, the Dutch government suspended its plan to develop a centralised flat print fingerprint population register, citing concerns about security and reliability of the system.
However, this is not the case with India, where it seems that there is ample money and nobody cares about security, reliability and privacy, and everybody from politicians, corporates to the media are 'greased', directly or indirectly. This is the reason why UIDAI is forcing the UID number onto gullible citizens.
"Why is India spending billions on Aadhaar, which depends on biometrics whose reliability is, so say the titans, utterly unknowable? And will the UIDAI ever answer my question how they can claim to offer unique identification when, based on their own figures, they would have to perform 18,000,000,000,000 (18 trillion or 18 lakh crore) manual checks to prove uniqueness? And why do they think Aadhaar will eradicate corruption, rather than automate corruption," asks Mr Moss.
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