High-quality fingerprint enrollment still underpins government identity systems
As governments come to terms with the new global conditions, one of the areas affected are identity systems which rely on contact biometrics. These systems are critical to national security, border protection and community safety but attitudes have changed and people are understandably apprehensive about the hygiene of shared surfaces. This has led to an increase in attention for contactless biometrics and a re-examination of the biometric technologies employed in national projects.
Contactless technologies were already growing in popularity, because of the convenience they offer in most applications. With this in mind the market for contactless biometrics is expected to grow at a rapid pace to reach $70 billion by 2030, with several different modalities such as facial, voice and iris recognition serving a wide range of applications. However, while contactless will undoubted serve many applications, particularly in the commercial space, foundational and government identity systems have specific requirements which can only be served by traditional contact fingerprint technologies.
Contact vs Contactless fingerprint applications
Recently the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has published a thorough comparison of contact and contactless biometric devices. This analysis showed that contactless systems attempting to match a single finger have only 60 to 70 percent accuracy. This improves for multiple fingers, where many systems approach 90 or even 95 percent accuracy, but only one got close to the 99.5 percent degree of accuracy that is considered standard for contact systems.
That difference is crucial in areas like border control, voter or civil registration, employee background checks or access to secure government facilities. All of these applications face high security requirements, but law enforcement possibly has greater demand on accuracy, due to the potential consequences of matching latent prints.
Law enforcement requires the highest degree of accuracy possible for suspect identification. The conditions under which biometric identification checks are carried out by police, however, are often less than ideal. Environmental factors can make collecting high-quality fingerprint images in the field challenging, particularly without specialized mobile equipment. Contactless hardware does not provide the necessary degree of accuracy for suspect identification, and equipping police with mobile contactless fingerprint devices would be prohibitively expensive anyway.
When the Moroccan Royal Gendarmerie, one of the country’s major law enforcement bodies, shifted from a paper-based system to digital fingerprint biometrics, it had requirements for biometric accuracy at national scale with government budget pressure. A comprehensive end-to-end solution from HID Global provided an application for converting fingerprint cards to a readable digital format, automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) workstations for latent print matching, applications servers, palm scanners and multi-modal biometric devices. The results were an efficient criminal booking process, providing electronic access to historical criminal records, with improved record matching accuracy and shortened response times.
There are situations in which government agencies are not required to follow the usual specifications, in which case they may chose contactless biometrics. For example, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) wants to perform rapid identity checks in the field, collecting contactless fingerprints with a cell phone, but such examples are relatively few and small.
For other applications, such as physical access control for an enterprise facility, the balance between security and convenience may be different, making contactless biometrics more compelling. Likewise, biometric smartphone unlocking does not require the security of high-precision fingerprinting.
Identity systems for high security applications like foundational systems for National Identity or travel documents, law enforcement databases or military base access prioritize quality data capture during the enrollment process in order to provide the required level of accuracy for subsequent verifications. Enrolling face biometrics is relatively easy and inexpensive, but can only provide similar accuracy in highly-controlled conditions. Iris biometrics can provide the same or even higher performance, but at the cost of deploying expensive hardware to every touchpoint that will use the system. As a consequence, only contact fingerprint devices which meet certain quality criteria are used. Due to the importance of image clarity to enrollment, these scanners typically verify that the images captured meet the necessary quality threshold as part of the process.
In Law Enforcement, this clarity of fingerprint detail is necessary due to the challenge of matching latent prints from crime scenes which tend to be very low quality. For fingerprint evidence to be used in court proceedings that could conclude with a person being sentenced to life in prison, or worse, the accuracy of the biometric match must be guaranteed beyond reasonable doubt.
The standard assuring the quality of fingerprint images is Appendix F of the Electronic Biometric Transmission Specification (EBTS), provided by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division. Government fingerprint systems typically follow internationally recognized standards, such as those developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), ISO/IEC, or ANSI/NIST. The European Entry/Exit System, for example, draws on standards from these organizations to ensure the consistent quality of biometric processes.
The FBI has made clear to NIST it will not certify contactless scanners for Criminal Enrollment or RapidID, which are the two key use cases for law enforcement. Enrollment of arrested individuals on booking involves recording rolled fingerprints and palm prints, which contactless technologies are not able to capture effectively.
High-quality, government-grade readers like the HID Guardian and HID L Scan are Appendix F-certified (the latter for palm prints), making them suitable for the most sensitive applications. They are high resolution devices which incorporate a silicone membrane to optimize accuracy across all skin types, optical technologies which ensure quality under any lighting condition or if the subject has wet fingers and controlled temperature platens to minimize the effect of environmental moisture. User guidance, finger detection and noise elimination mechanisms ensure that subjects are enrolled to the highest standard, quickly and efficiently, whilst spoof detection spots any attempt to defraud the system.
The use of biometrics continues to expand, enhancing the security and convenience of applications from device access to frictionless travel experiences. Contactless modalities have an important role to play in this evolving identification landscape. Foundational government ID and law enforcement applications, however, are fundamentally different from many of these newer uses and will continue to use contact fingerprint devices to ensure the highest accuracy to prevent identity fraud and miscarriages of justice.