Big Data: Facial Recognition and the Biometrics Movement

Just a few years ago, using a fingerprint to sign on to your phone seemed futuristic. Today, it’s everywhere and just the beginning of how biometrics will be woven into our lives. Biometrics is a method of digital identity verification that scans a person’s physical characteristics such as a fingerprint, iris, face, or voice.

The field of biometrics presents both enormous promise as well as challenges. The promise includes new applications that can increase convenience, safety, and business opportunities. The challenges include finding the technology to manage this huge volume and variety of data as well as privacy and security concerns.

One of the most ambitious biometrics initiatives is the Aadhaar project —building an identity verification database of India’s 1.2 billion residents. For the disadvantaged in India, the inability to prove one’s identity is one of the biggest barriers that prevent people from accessing benefits and subsidies. Since very few residents have any type of paper identification, it’s difficult for the government to ensure that welfare benefits go directly to the right person.

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The world’s largest biometric database will provide every resident with a unique identification number that can be used to access a variety of services and benefits such as food coupons, cooking gas, checking accounts, loans, insurance, pensions, and property deeds. The project’s goal was to enroll a million people per day, taking four years to enroll the entire population.

The biometric database includes an iris scan, digital fingerprints, a digital photo, and text-based description for each resident. Residents use fingerprints or iris scans for authentication. The system processes over a hundred million identity verifications each day, and can verify a person’s identity within 200 milliseconds.

Biometric technologies are also being used to help fight crime. While fingerprints have been used in law enforcement for decades, there is increased investment in facial recognition technologies by the military, casinos, and law enforcement. And some retailers are starting to use facial recognition to identify known shoplifters in their stores or to prevent them from even entering a store.

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Some retailers are also experimenting with facial recognition to gain insights about the customer’s shopping experience. A recent survey of British retailers revealed that more than 1 in 4 are using facial recognition technologies in their stores. A third of respondents object to stores collecting data on them and 24 per cent believe it’s useful for their shopping experience. Younger shoppers are more likely to find it to be beneficial to improve their shopping experience.

Facial recognition that focuses on reading emotions rather than a specific person’s identity is also being used in business.

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