Know your role: The business of biometrics

How important is the vendors’ role in the billion-dollar biometrics industry? 

Chris Burt, Editor at Biometrics Update, explains why transparency is so important in the thriving biometrics sector. He also shares his tips for how the industry can react to controversies.

The biometric sector is in the midst of a boom. What do you think the impact of so much investment will be – the good, the bad and the ugly?

There are two ways to look at it. One is in terms of the funding itself. Taking the broader view of the boom times, one thing that always happens in this situation – in any industry, it’s certainly not just a biometrics thing – is opportunism arises. That can play out in terms of new entrants into the market. It can also play out in existing entrants. And that may be something like a company saying, “Well, we’ve got a good product in this area. We’re just going to apply it to this other area.”

In some cases, maybe they haven’t thought that out quite as well as they should. It makes me think of the phrase ‘irrational exuberance’, which the US Federal Reserve chairman said once about the stock market. But it was similar conditions; it was a lot of money flooding into a market and people reacting in ways they might not otherwise.

So, while there is a downside there’s also a lot of good coming out of it already, and a lot better to come. Some of that is in the form of research and development. We can see the advances that R&D investment is resulting in. Look at some fields in and around biometrics, like liveness detection or contactless technologies. Even if you look at raw accuracy rates, I think it’s fair to say that over the last several years there have been dramatic improvements. Also in terms of the public conversation, the fact that we have Biometric Update and the IDentity Today podcast, it really will help in the long term to move the industry forward.

Certainly from Daltrey’s perspective, we’re seeing a lot of companies jump on the biometrics bandwagon. But there’s a heritage of biometrics, and those who have been in it for a long time understand what it means to be a responsible biometrics vendor. What is your perspective on that and all of the complexities around being responsible for someone’s biometric information?

You’re quite right about the complexities. It’s important to recognise not only that those complexities are there, but that they’re not the same for different applications or modalities.

I guess the short answer would be that this is kind of out of my pay grade. But at the same time, based on what I’ve observed from people for whom this is in their pay grade, what these experts are saying is that there’s a real need to know yourself, to know your role.

Every vendor, every developer needs to know their role. And if you are a systems integrator or an algorithm developer, you’re not going to necessarily have the same role and therefore not the same responsibilities. In any biometrics deployment, everything from the source of the training data at the beginning of algorithm development all the way to how scanners are placed around an environment could weigh into that. There are increasingly good resources out there for those parties to refer to.

What I would say is that from a daily-news perspective, when we see your irresponsibility, it tends to call itself out pretty sharply. In those cases, it tends to be pretty clear that there was something the implementing party or vendor was supposed to do and should have known.

In 2022, companies and vendors can no longer plead ignorance.

There’s been some media focus on biometrics recently, for example the controversy around Clearview AI. This type of controversy tends to sweep up the rest of the industry with it, and it all becomes a bit conflated. From a media-expert perspective, how do you think we should react to that?

That’s a good question and obviously very pertinent right now. I would say that it’s always a challenge throughout any controversy for media to clarify or get to the bottom of what’s real. That’s a responsibility we take very seriously at Biometric Update. But we look at that responsibility differently than, let’s say, consumer publications. Those publications are not necessarily equipped to even assess what’s real and what’s not real. Furthermore, they’re not necessarily equipped to even ask the right questions.

That puts a lot of weight on what happens within the industry. That goes for us at Biometric Update, it goes for you at Daltrey, and it goes for all the vendors out there who can easily be weighed down by mistakes – or even perceived mistakes – made by others. In order to actually address this issue, one of the main things is to have united messaging. We should all be using the same language to describe these things, which can help clear up confusion.

One thing I’ve seen from businesses in the biometrics space is some real, genuine attempts to compete on transparency. I think that if that’s done well, then we can drive the message of what’s real much more easily.

I want to give an example. Last year when Afghanistan was falling to the Taliban, there were reports that they were gaining access to biometric data. This is obviously the kind of terrible outcome that nobody wants, and which could give the industry a black eye. There were several articles in the early days about whether or not this was happening. There were suggestions that the hardware had clearly been seized, and maybe they had access to servers but the data may have been protected. So, were they accessing it or not?

I have to tell you that from the perspective of someone who’s tried to answer that question, it is still very unclear. I think anybody who tells you they know for certain is in Afghanistan right now, they just got back, or they are making assumptions they should not be making.

So when it comes to getting the message right and moving past some of these controversies, we need to be able to differentiate between what’s really happening and what’s not. That’s going to require a real concerted effort from the industry as a whole.

Want more insight into the world of cybersecurity, digital identity, biometrics and more? Get your fix with the IDentity Today podcast, hosted by Daltrey CEO Blair Crawford. Listen via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.