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Will the iris herald the biometric revolution?

Nirgunan Tiruchelvam
Nirgunan Tiruchelvam7/3/2020 07:00 AM GMT+08  • 4 min read
Will the iris herald the biometric revolution?
Biometrics are widely used by banks to identify customers. However, biometrics are not free of risks.
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(July 3): The publishers of this magazine are housed in a simple building on Cecil Street. I last visited The Edge Singapore shortly before Covid-19. I was shocked that the method of identification at the lobby had not changed for decades.

The visitors had to write their name and identity card (IC) number on an old-fashioned ledger. The IC is then surrendered to the security guard. It is only returned once the visitor leaves the building. There are many risks to the building and the visitor with this system. The IC is accepted at face value. There is a risk to the visitor as the IC is not with him. For example, I forgot to collect my IC, after leaving the building. Covid-19 has also highlighted the risk of infection from physical contact.

This type of identification was still common in many buildings in Singapore until a few weeks ago. Covid-19 has claimed many casualties. It is amazing that this system survived in a city-state that has pioneered biometrics. Biometrics are a person’s physical characteristics. Facial recognition like the technology that is used on iPhones is an example. Fingerprints and irises are another form of it.

Many readers may have hazy recollections of airports. Changi Airport was one of the first to use biometric identification for the boarding process. Other countries have followed suit. British Airways has estimated that the use of biometrics has halved the time required to board 400 passengers in Los Angeles to 22 minutes.

Biometrics are widely used by banks to identify customers. It is a common standard for PCs. The principal attraction is that it does not require one to verify identity through an object like an IC. One does not have to even remember a password.

However, biometrics are not free of risks. Recently, my wife indulged my identical twin sons with the latest iPad. The twins are almost indistinguishable to the human eye. Even close friends sometimes struggle to tell them apart. They have the same DNA. The iPad can be opened through facial recognition. The younger of the twins opened the other’s iPad. Apart from the fraternal tension that this caused, it struck me that facial recognition biometrics have problems.

There is a fool-proof alternative to this issue — iris recognition. The iris is the ring-shaped membrane behind the cornea of the eye. My twins may have the same appearance and genetic makeup, but their iris is unique. In fact, each eye in every person is different. The secret solution to biometrics may indeed be the iris.

But, there is a larger problem with biometrics. What if someone gets a hold of the biometric database? If someone loses an IC, it can be invalidated and replaced. A forgotten password can be reset. Biometric data cannot be replaced or reset.

This danger came to light when I visited Hong Kong in 2015. An online magazine ran a media campaign to deter people from littering. It had reconstructed people’s likeness (not their actual photos) from plastic cans and cigarettes that people had disposed of. A database then reconstructed people’s photos from the biometric data in the litter. They had enough clues to recreate the eye colour, skin tone and facial features.

The dangers of stolen biometric data are limitless. We could face a pandemic of stolen identity. Singapore-based company Infinity Optics, for example, has even patented iris recognition technology. It is so discerning that it was able to distinguish my twins!

Its secret sauce is that it has also solved the privacy problem. An independent test shows that Infinity Optics technology does not leave a trace of its biometric information in the outcoming codes. This, according to its CEO Alfred Chan, eliminates privacy security risks. If so, Infinity Optics may be going places.

The stock market proxies for biometrics are rare. Bio-Key is a Nasdaq-listed company that provides fingerprint identification services. Intellicheck, listed on NYSE, is a fascinating company that authenticates driving licenses through biometrics. Datasonics on the KLSE provide biometrics for the Malaysian government. All three of these stocks have doubled since March, beneficiaries of the Covid-19 hysteria.

The market for this technology is massive. As investors come to grips with its potential, they should welcome the end of the ledger books.

Nirgunan Tiruchelvam is head of consumer sector equity at Tellimer (Exotix Capital)

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