Trueface biometrics to help identify and reunite Hurricane Dorian victims

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Bahamas-based digital infrastructure startup Bluestone Technologies Ltd. had been in talks with facial biometrics provider Trueface for several months before Hurricane Dorian ravaged the Bahamas, striking the Abaco islands as a category five event, wiping out enormous swaths of infrastructure, killing dozens, and creating a humanitarian crisis with many missing people.

Bluestone co-founder John Bridgewater found himself using Facebook to conduct a frantic search for his brother and grandmother among the many missing people, and reached out to Trueface with an idea for a system that could make it easier for people to find their missing loved ones. Since then, the companies have worked together on a solution Bridgewater described to Biometric Update in an exclusive interview as “an effort to leverage facial recognition to connect those that are missing with those that are being evacuated from various islands, that are going to shelters.”

The result is FindMeBahamas.com and FindMeCaricom.com, the latter of which refers to a regional group consisting of the Bahamas and 15 other Caribbean countries, and the former of which went through beta testing over the past week to prepare for its live launch. While Bridgewater’s family has been found safe, many others remain yet to be identified or united with their loved ones, over 4,000, according to Dorian People Search Bahamas at the time of publication.

Trueface CEO Shaun Moore describes the project to Biometric Update as a great way to use facial recognition technology to help people, and demonstrate how it can be used for good. In addition to enabling real-time matching, the use case is well-suited to a privacy-preserving architecture, he says.

Biometrics data collection in humanitarian settings has become somewhat controversial as efficiency and fraud-reduction concerns have increased the technology’s use.

“I see the concern,” Moore admits. “I love talking with people about the privacy concerns. But there are things from a technology standpoint that we can do to ensure the information is siloed and transferred properly, which is what we’ve done.”

The system does not store raw images, and Trueface itself does not store any data at all. Instead, Bluestone provides the infrastructure the system runs on, which is key, according to Moore.

“I think it’s important in the privacy discussion to highlight that people are more concerned about where that data’s going and who has access to it then the act of recognition,” he says. “That’s in large part why we built the solution that we have is so that John and his team can take it and localize it, they’re infrastructure never gets passed back to us.”

When asked about capturing biometric data on difficult conditions, Moore says the digital infrastructure is more of a challenge than quality camera availability. Setting the matching parameters and process involves some design work, as the entrepreneurs do not want to create false hope. If the system finds a single missing person, Moore says it will be well worth it.

Disaster relief is just a part of a larger plan, however, to increase the coverage and effectiveness of legal identification throughout the Caribbean. Regional organization Caricom plans to build a single market in the Caribbean, allowing for free trade and free movement. With an estimated 60 to 65 percent of the 20 million people living in Caricom countries currently without ID, the intended social and economic development steps of the organization will depend on a dramatic increase in digital identity coverage.

“The digital infrastructure is really what the Bluestone network is about, and biometric ID is just the first layer to help people to get more inclusion in the financial system, and giving them better access to health care services,” Bridgewater explains.

FindMeBahamas.com will launch with a focus on assisting efforts to find missing people in The Bahamas, while FindMeCaracom.com will serve the entire region for disaster response and ongoing efforts, according to the plan.

Recovering from the disaster wrought by Hurricane Dorian provides an opportunity to upgrade an identification ecosystem and infrastructure that was already inadequate and vulnerable to disruption.

“Government agencies are wiped away, public hospital records are gone. So how are you going to now move forward?” Bridgewater asks. “You’re not going to build the same old thing that you had previously. You have to build a digital infrastructure that you can always pull it up on the go, there’s always a record of it. The uniqueness of blockchain provides the immutability and that distribution of data that you can always have access to it on the go.”

Highlighting the potential value of facial recognition technology to improve people’s lives important, Moore says. Part of doing so means being clear about what is and is not being done.

“We’re taking information that’s existing and trying to make the best use of that information for the greater good,” he explains. “I think it’s important to realize this technology when used appropriately can be very, very helpful. We don’t have like a national database, we’re not building a database for John’s team, we’re not sharing any data we have. It’s completely siloed for each of our clients. We give them the ability to make sure the data’s encrypted, and you store personal information away from the ID of the individual.”

Bridgewater urges the biometrics and digital ID communities to build applications, not just use cases. As “white hat” developers do so, solutions that shed positive light on facial recognition technology could deliver real-world benefits, and help to balance public perception.

“If you were missing a loved one, and the only way that you could find them was through facial recognition software, would you shun it?” he asks.

Moore agrees. “We’ve got to give this technology an opportunity to show its value,” he says. If FindMeBahamas or FindMeCaricom reunites even a single missing person with their loved ones, Moore’s stated criteria for success, then Trueface and Bluestone will have done so.

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