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Top biometrics and digital ID news stories of 2019: ramping up, investments and arguments

Top biometrics and digital ID news stories of 2019: ramping up, investments and arguments

The spectacular growth of biometrics and digital identity drove the publication of more than 2,500 news items on Biometric Update in 2019, 2565 to be precise. Some were of interest only to those working in a specific niche, or quickly became part of a larger chain of events. Others drew broad readership from within the industry and beyond, or piqued the interest of a steady stream of people.

As part of our retrospective of the year just passed, those articles which were read by the most people are collected to provide perspective on what the community has been thinking about. From reports about new technology, to major industry announcements, to in-depth interviews with identity thought leaders and executives, the top stories of 2019 on Biometric Update also provide a sense of the range digital identification issues have taken on.

It is worth noting that the list below has been screened for traffic referred from web pages about mythical beasts and conspiracies, as biometrics has attracted the attention of a sometimes-hilariously wide range of readers.

One of our top stories of the year covered the launch of a program to provide digital ID to people receiving vaccines, in order to ensure their proper delivery and dosage. The ID2020 Alliance, vaccine group Gavi, and the Government of Bangladesh collaborated with other partners in the humanitarian, government, and academic spheres to build a digital identity system that keeps control of identity data with users. The story was representative of a trend towards coordinated efforts between governments, NGOs, and other new or non-industry players developing identification and verification systems specifically for the humanitarian space.

Also in the humanitarian space, UNICEF is encouraging countries to avoid skipping steps in their urgency to deploy digital identity for development benefits. The agency’s Associate Director and Global Chief of Child Protection, Cornelius Williams, told Biometric Update at the ID4Africa 2019 meeting in Johannesburg, shortly after joining the ID4Africa Board of Directors, that resources are in some cases being invested unevenly between different government departments or agencies working on identity, leading to inconsistent or even duplicate identity services.

One of our first articles of 2019 invited leading executives in the fingerprint and smartcard business to preview the burgeoning market for biometric payment cards. It turns out some of you know a bit about the market, which is reassuring going forward, and bigger things for 2020 are included among the forecasts. The power-harvesting, certification, and cost challenges have largely been met, and component makers, integrators, and payment system providers have largely partnered up.

Progress in the space culminated in a commercial biometric credit card launch, albeit on a limited basis, in Switzerland late in the year. Fingerprint Cards, Gemalto, and Visa all contributed technology, and will surely announce a follow-up deal elsewhere soon. Let the landrush begin!

Even as one biometric use case moves towards ubiquity, the last is hardly perfected, as researchers from Tencent’s X-Lab claim to have developed a method for hacking into nearly any Android or iOS device with a fingerprint sensor. The attack method is said to cost abut $140, and requires the attacker to collect a decent latent print, but still emphasizes the importance of liveness detection for high-security biometric applications.

On the government identity side of biometric cards, national IDs in the EU moved a step closer towards a requirement of stored fingerprint biometric data this year as well, with the executive and parliamentary branches reaching an informal agreement on new standards in March. Discussions related to the database such cards will be matched against also drew headlines this year, and is a possible area of contentious debate in the year ahead.

Regulatory issues broke out as a practical present concern and danger to biometric revenues in 2019, with several different rules and proposals causing concern within the industry. The first fine levied under Europe’s GDPR for a biometric project was a relatively mild fine of roughly $20,000 to a school in Sweden which set up a facial recognition attendance system. Much more damaging to the industry than the fine is the precedent, which includes the impossibility of meaningful consent to such a system by students. More damaging still would be businesses and school boards in the jurisdiction failing to receive the message.

A report from peace advocacy group PAX suggests Turkey is attempting to acquire an army of killer drones using facial recognition to pick out their targets. The potential dangers of such a system are noted by civil society, but investment in autonomous weapons has taken off over the past decade, according to the report.

One of the negative themes of the year was anxiety over the misuse of biometric technology, either in furthering fraud or in surveillance systems that cross the line into repression.

An article in February delved into the state of deepfakes and technologies to combat them, with fake people and convincing fake text entering the fray. A blockchain tool for identifying video that has been altered is among the proposed solutions to the nefarious use of the technology, which could be used to sow public misinformation or mount spoof attacks for logical access. A classic race between harmful technology and defenses against it appears to be heating up.

In a potential breakthrough in camera technology, with a 500MP camera capable of delivering images sufficiently detailed to perform cloud facial recognition on large crowds of people developed by a team of scientists from several institutions in China. With slowly increasing public pushback against the spread of facial recognition in the country, however, a few concerns were immediately noted.

A recent trend toward industry consolidation continued in 2019, with Gemalto announcing the acquisition of Green Bit to integrate its fingerprint scanners as part of an integrated system in March. Green Bit’s staff have become part of the government business unit of Gemalto, which itself just merged with Thales, and will boost its research and development capacities. The price was estimated to be around $30 million.

Another success story this year was Onfido’s $50 million Series C funding round, which the company’s Co-founder and CEO Husayn Kassai told Biometric Update in an interview will fuel further development while it scales its sales and marketing efforts. Those efforts seem to be paying off, from the steady stream of partnerships announced later in the year by the company. Kassai notes that the common denominator behind the 2 to 5 percent of global GDP which is estimated to be laundered each year is identity fraud.

The usefulness of facial recognition in fraud detection and onboarding for digital identity will also be leveraged by the French government for its national digital ID program. That is assuming, of course, it can assure data regulator CNIL that doing so is allowable under GDPR’s consent rules. If successful, the move would allow France to digitize more public services. Between CNIL’s pending decision and EU-level changes, more will be heard on this story in the new year.

Another major national ID announcement came from Nigeria, which is set to receive $433 million from the World Bank to support the registration drive for its biometric National Identification Number (NIN) system. The goal is to register 100 million Nigerians over the next three years, though that would still leave more than 40 million people unregistered out of some 200 million. Nigeria’s NIMC began looking for partners in September, and is hoping to use the biometric credential broadly for government and some private services.

Among many forecasts of impressive, and in some cases spectacular market growth for different areas of the biometrics and digital identity industries, the one which received the most attention in 2019 was Goode Intelligence’s mid-year report on the digital identity and document verification market. With $15 billion expected from the space within five years, the scope and scale of activity in the sector, while challenging to keep up with at times, is hardly surprising.

Industry forecasts and momentum give everyone in biometrics and digital ID communities reasons to be thankful and optimistic as the year draws to a close. The opportunities and pitfalls that await promise another exciting year in the field for 2020.

Check out our year-end coverage of digital ID in the Global South, as well as our most read guest posts, feature interviews, and industry predictions for 2020 as we wrap up the past 12 months, and look ahead to another year of growth and change.

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