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Canadian researchers considering iris biometrics to help homeless get healthcare


A Canadian research project is looking at the use of iris recognition to help homeless people get around the problem of accessing healthcare without proper identification, according to a report by the London Free Press (LFP).

The project, which is directed by Cheryl Forchuk of the Lawson Research Institute, recently presented her project at the Ontario Legislative Building at Queen’s Park in Toronto.

“People are constantly losing their ID, and others are constantly replacing their ID,” said Forchuk. “You can’t access routine health services without a health card.”

The Lawson Research Institute is one of the largest hospital-based research institutes in Canada and is committed to furthering scientific knowledge to advance health care around the world.

Forchuk, a leader in research that helps the homeless and mentally ill, heads a Lawson team trying to create a smart mental health system, said the ID issue was brought to researchers by homeless people.

“In speaking with the people about alternate forms of ID, we heard that they didn’t want fingerprints because it was too close to the justice system, and facial recognition might not work because people lose so much weight,” she said.

The iris recognition project will begin later this month with researchers asking those at select temporary shelters whether they’d be comfortable having their iris image captured to be used as a form of ID. An algorithm developed by engineering students at Western University will turn those images into a number that will become the test subjects’ unique ID numbers.

“This is still very much in the preliminary stages,” said Forchuk. “People might like it, they might not.”

Ontario NDP member of provincial parliament, Peggy Sattler, who saw the technology when it was presented at Queen’s Park, said, “This (project) is not intended to stigmatize homeless people. It will shed light on how this could work and it can help homeless people have access to health care.”

In fact, the technology could also be expanded for all Ontarians, Sattler and Forchuk said.

“There are 100,000 more OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Program) numbers than there are Ontarians,” Sattler said. “Eventually, you could get an iris scan at your doctor’s office and it would go into some kind of database, and every time you access health care, you don’t need a card.”

Details about the storage and protection of the biometric data have yet to be worked out.

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