Local research on iris exams to help ID terrorists and discover fraud

When you hear the words "image-based biometrics," you probably think of science fiction or something from the world of the future.

But image-based biometrics, simply put, are images of parts of people.

In the wake of 9-11 and other terror attacks, federal agencies are increasingly interested in this type of technology; so much so that two researchers at Notre Dame are getting money from the FBI for their work studying identical twins.


You may remember a scene from Steven Spielberg's 2002 movie, “Minority Report,” where Tom Cruise's character is subjected to a forced iris exam by police robots to confirm his identity.

While it seems like movie magic, it's really technology that many commercial companies say is already available.

“There are companies and research groups that say they could have distinguished, they could have identified the 9-11 hijackers,” said Patrick Flynn, a professor in Notre Dame's Biometrics Research Department.

Notre Dame researchers Flynn and Dr. Kevin Bowyer say the problem is that those claims are not backed up with large amounts of data.

They've been working nine years to change that, both in their own lab, where in two short seconds a 3D scanner catches every part of a person’s face.

These pioneers took their research the last two years to Twinsburg, Ohio.

“Twinsburg is really an unusual environment, in that it's really not a laboratory, it's a fair,” said Dr. Bowyer.

A fair where all kinds of identical twins show up, dressed alike, giving researchers a unique opportunity.

“For two days we're open for image acquisition and whoever comes can ask us questions, talk to us about what we're doing and then participate or not in the image acquisition,” said Dr. Bowyer. “If you have two very similarly appearing people how can you distinguish them using advanced biometrics techniques?"

They set up cameras and end up with highly detailed images.

"The unique angle on twins in the high resolution imaging we use modern cameras with a very large number of pixels to capture the face at a very fine level of detail," explains Dr. Bowyer.

Using grants they received from the FBI, Notre Dame now has the largest collection of 3D scans involving twins in the world.

“The FBI would like to understand how biometrics systems work and how deliberate attempts at deception might be countered by well performing biometrics systems,” explainsDr. Flynn.

Keeping terrorists at bay is only part of why biometrics is important. They say India is already using it to help people who truly need government services. And for the everyday person, it may also help reduce identity fraud.

Bowyer and Flynn brought their field-collected data back to campus to see whether volunteers could determine whether the images came from a pair of twins or unrelated people.

“From face recognitions we've found that people looking at images of a pair of twins can distinguish between the two twins, but with iris biometrics technology one person's left eye doesn't look anymore like their right than unrelated people," says Dr. Flynn. He says that's true in 80-percent of cases they studied.

They hope their research on eyes will help rule out random guessing.

Doctors Bowyer and Flynn’s role in biometrics is to serve as part of a team that is an honest broker when it comes to evaluating biometrics systems.

And if the eyes are the window of the soul, their research may give us a more accurate view than Hollywood portrays.


Both Doctor's Bowyer and Flynn believe their research may eventually be used for purposes beyond those currently envisioned by the biometrics research community.

If you would like to learn more about their research, click here.


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