CITeR Director talks research to inform dialogue on children’s biometrics and privacy

CITeR Director talks research to inform dialogue on children’s biometrics and privacy

Despite the impressive advances of biometrics as a scientific field over recent years, very little is known about identifying children from their physical characteristics, according to Clarkson University Paynter-Krigman Endowed Professor in Engineering Science and Director of the Center for Identification Technology Research (CITeR) Stephanie Schuckers.

The longitudinal study on the effectiveness of different biometric modalities considers the stability of biometric characteristics, as well as how to mitigate any changes found to enable identification. Schuckers told Biometric Update she hopes it will increase the scientific understanding that should underpin any decisions about the technology.

“There are very few fundamental studies that look at how the biometric changes as the child grows. Particularly that are prospective, where basically you’re looking forward rather than just opportunistically finding data over time, or what we call retrospective.”

As biometrics are increasingly used in the world children live in, for access to health care and consumer electronics, for example, research into the fundamental science of biometrics is important for informing what use cases might and might not be appropriate, according to Schuckers.

“And here we are. Without this research, we have little understanding, so we’re either choosing not to use technology, or choosing to use it and hoping it works out.”

Schuckers mentions cybersecurity, identity theft, crimes against children, human trafficking, and healthcare as possible areas of use for children’s biometrics, and notes that initial analysis shows stability in iris recognition up to three years after the time of enrollment for children aged 4 to 11.

The robust review processes include consideration of ethics and participant privacy, and follow a standard that is very well established.

“When we do human-subject studies, we are put through a higher standard at a university than others are, because there are laws around it,” Schuckers explains. “In order for us to even embark on a study, we submit it the study that we’re going to do to our institutional review board (IRB), that follows the laws. We must have an IRB in order to receive federal funding, and that IRB must be constructed in a way that’s consistent with the federal laws. So we are using best practices, as we understand them, in terms of the IRB, to inform our subjects and their parents first, and get their approval, through the signature of the parent and the child. We have different levels of explanation about the study and consent for children; verbal when they’re younger, and signatures when they’re older, and we also give people the ability to withdraw from the study. We think that is the best way to collect biometric data; through informed consent. That’s the best practice.”

Schuckers continues, “Entities dealing with sensitive data need to inform people of the intended collection of data, obtain consent, make sure data subjects know what data is being collected, give people the option to remove data, and keep it secure. CITeR not only follows those best practices, storing data securely with a random number and sharing it only under contracts limiting its use, but also encourages others in the industry to do so as well. More laws and guidelines, both nationally and internationally, can help companies know how to put those practices into operation, and emphasizes that the social dialogue around limiting biometrics are part of a healthy process.”

So is choice, and Schuckers declines to dwell on a recent instance of participant opt-out, which was followed by a letter to New York’s North Country Now newspaper from the first person in the three-year history of an academic biometric research project to express concerns about the study and the technology in general.

In a response letter to North Country Now, Clarkson University Vice President of External Relations Kelly O. Chezum notes that the school does not believe participation in the study poses an increased risk, and that some parents have expressed approval of exposing their children to state of the art technology and proactively increasing awareness of data uses.

“I would look at the flipside,” Schuckers says. “Certainly people can decline to participate, that’s fine. We are just so grateful for the folks that do participate because we think this is a very important study, and I think what we learn from it will go to the safety and security of children, where biometric applications might affect them.”

Longitudinal studies were identified as a critical need to make progress in infant biometrics by Anil Jain in conversation with Biometric Update at ID4Africa 2019, where several experts held a panel discussion on their research. Several of those studies, like the CITeR project, are ongoing.

“We’ve been thrilled with the support that we’ve had for the study, and this is the first time we’ve had something like this, and I respect people in terms of their opinions,” Schuckers says.

“We don’t lose sight of the fact that this is a research study, and we must hold ourselves to the highest standard. We do that through our IRB, through the process required by law, as well as following best practices as they relate to privacy, including consent.”

The extent to which the industry follows that lead will play a significant role in motivating public confidence in biometric technology going forward.

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