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Identity expert dissects biometric authentication failures and how to overcome them

Identity expert dissects biometric authentication failures and how to overcome them

Development economist, biometrics expert and ID4Africa Advisory Board member Dr. Alan Gelb has explained the various ways through which biometric authentication failures manifest, and the steps that can be taken in order to avert the consequences of such incidents.

The Senior Fellow at the Global Center for Development also underlined the importance of identity authentication, saying it plays a significant role in the process of service delivery, especially as many countries across the world roll out digital ID systems and services that require identity-enabled access.

Gelb discussed this and other issues during a chat with ID4Africa Executive Chairman Dr. Joseph Atick during the identity movement’s 22nd LiveCast on October 27. The conversation made up the ‘To the Point’ segment of the virtual event.

The discussion allowed Gelb the opportunity to share the results of some of his research findings related to the application of biometric ID technology in developing and resource-rich countries and results-based aid delivery.

He began by looking at the various methods of authentication and highlighted the demerits of some of them, such as PINs and passwords, saying studies suggest people often have difficulty remembering them, in contrast to authentication methods based on biometrics.

He said although there cannot be said to be any best method of authentication for all possible applications because all of them operate differently, biometric systems offer ease of use.

“This is an interesting system because you are not required to carry around a PIN or password or card in your head. It can be very fast, it can be very effective. It’s something that’s also impossible to delegate to someone else,” he quipped.

Notwithstanding, biometric systems can also have downsides, he said: “Like with the other forms of authentication, there can be failures and errors. Biometrics is a bit unusual in that the matching is statistical, and not deterministic because every taking of a biometric image can be slightly different. So whereas you can match up PINs exactly, you cannot match up biometric data exactly. Because of that, there are some particular types of errors that come up with biometrics.”

Which are those errors?

Gelb went further to examine the kinds of biometric error that can occur during authentication, what triggers those errors and how they manifest, as well as the consequences that come with them. These errors, he said, can be broken down into two three main categories and they include failure to capture, false non-match or false reject rate, as well as false match or false accept rate.

Some of these failures, the development economist said, generally end up in bad experiences either at the level of effective service delivery to the rightful people or wrongful denial of services to the right beneficiaries. Despite expecting some errors, Gelb said he and members of his research team have however been surprised at the high rate of the failures.

He also mentioned some of the studies on biometric authentication failures in relation to service delivery, notably in India regarding the Aadhaar biometric ID system, as well as others in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and how authorities worked to handled them.

How can these errors be checked?

Among other things, Gelb said resorting to the use of multi-modal biometrics systems can reduce occurrence of errors during authentication.

“The use of multi-modal biometrics can certainly reduce the rate of errors. If fingerprints don’t work, you try iris. If the iris doesn’t work, maybe you try face. One of the studies we looked at does exactly that as a system of backups and the failure rates are very, very low,” said Gelb.

Given the increasing nature of biometric authentication failures and the consequences that come with them, Gelb equally made some recommendations which can be of help to governments or all those using such technology to verify individuals at the point of service.

“It’s very important to assess the level of assurance of identity at the point of service for any particular program. One needs to understand what they are authenticating and what the consequences or benefits are. Authentication is very good for individuals because it gives them control over their own entitlements, but also there are drawbacks. We need to do a proper assessment on that,” he recommended.

He advised further: “We need to also think about a range of possible options. Biometrics is one. There may be other options as well. We certainly need to carry out pilot tests early on. Sometimes, these systems are not pilot- tested properly on the kinds of populations that the authorities are going to have to deal with. If they are going to deal with old or poor rural people, those are the people the systems have to be tested on.”

Gelb concluded by saying although biometric authentication systems are loved because of their convenience and confidence, it is important for service providers who require authentication at points of service to have backup systems or options because “there is no reason why biometric authentication failures should lead to denial of services.”

ID4Africa’s next Livecast event will begin a three-part series on mitigating risks associated with identity, with the November 17 episode focused on identifying risks.

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