Anil Jain (India, 1948) has wondered many times why humans are born with "special drawings" on their hands and feet. Perhaps this curiosity has helped him become one of the foremost international experts in fingerprint and face recognition. Decades of achievements in this field of research, known as biometrics, have earned him a long list of academic awards, including a Ph.D. honoris cause awarded last Thursday by the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM). And above all, his work has allowed him to contribute to extend the applications of biometrics from police investigations to more and more areas of common life.
Being able to identify who left fingerprints at the scene of a crime was the first revolution in biometrics
"Biometrics is here to stay," says this professor at Michigan State University (USA) in an interview given to EL PAÍS after the delivery of the doctorate at the UAM. The premises that give reliability to the method of individual recognition of fingerprints are "uniqueness and perseverance," explains Jain. "Uniqueness refers to how many different individuals we can identify based on this recognition modality. The constancy, to the fact that the footprints do not change in time, "he says. At the beginning of the 20th century, the possibility of taking advantage of these characteristics induced police forces such as Scotland Yard and the FBI to implement this technique to search for criminals. "Being able to identify who left fingerprints at the scene of a crime was the first revolution in biometrics," says this researcher of Indian origin.
When he started working in this field, almost 30 years ago, biometrics was still in his childhood. In his opinion, "the second most important" that has allowed this science has been the possibility of finding out the uniqueness of identities and preventing an individual from having documents that attribute more than one. This problem can be particularly serious in developing countries where "citizens often lack any proof of identity", explained shortly before the audience that attended his reception at the UAM. "Without an identity document it is not possible to make transactions or access government aid", underlines EL PAÍS.
Jain gives the example of India, where -he remembers- "there are 1,200 million inhabitants", to explain how biometric technologies help to avoid errors of identity attribution. "When someone asks to obtain a passport, they take all their fingerprints, the images of both iris and face. Then, these elements are entered into a database of all those who have requested an identity document to find out that they no longer have another passport and a different name. " Jain adds that this application "is being considered in all the larger developing countries, such as Indonesia or Brazil."
The attack of 11S marked a milestone in the history of biometrics. After that terrorist attack, "the United States began to collect the prints of everyone who entered. These data can be contrasted with the list of alleged terrorists, "says Jain. The technologies applied to security have experienced an unstoppable evolution, he adds. "I'm sure there are many more cameras in Spain today too. The objective is to identify who is in the place of an attack and to be able to identify the responsible person later, when analyzing the recordings ". The new advances in biometrics push towards an increasing automation and acceleration of these processes, to allow a "real-time" identification of the suspects, adds Jain.
In the applications there are probabilities of error, although much lower with respect to when a document is used
The researcher does not hide the enthusiasm generated by the new perspectives of application of biometrics. Facial recognition can be used to find out the author of the reservation of a plane ticket or the holder of a credit card, as examples. The use of this technology is also being imposed to protect access to smartphones. "Some mobiles already have an unlocking system based on face recognition," he says. Jain believes that this trend is not going to be interrupted. "The use of biometrics began with forensic applications, then moved to border controls and now it is spreading to all kinds of civil applications," he observes.
New challenges before possible threats
Ensuring the effectiveness and safety of these systems is not always easy, says Jain. "In all these applications there are probabilities of error, although much lower than when a document is used," he says. The main concern is related to the need to develop defense strategies against "possible attacks on a biometric system," he explains. This danger can be verified through the artificial reproduction of the prints and the face of a person with plastic models, or with attacks on public databases, he argues. "If a citizen's biometric data were stolen, it could be used to withdraw money from your bank account," he warns.
The main concern is privacy
The researchers are working hard to improve the accuracy of biometric systems, according to Jain. A big challenge, he adds, is to get the capacity to manage increasingly large amounts of data. "In the world we live 7,500 million people. Could we develop a system that affirms with certainty who you are among those 7.5 billion people? Maybe after no need for any document, "he suggests laughing.
A question of privacy
The more the potential of biometrics grows, the more the debate about the legitimacy of the use of the data that is captured becomes more acute. "The main concern is privacy," says Jain. "With so many security cameras, it's easy for the police to track a person. Now, if it is a criminal it is fine. But if it were not like that, it would be an invasion of privacy. You could know what are the customs of a person, the stores that one goes to, the friends one has. All that would be typical of a totalitarian society based on the use of biometrics, "he says.
The researcher invites to reflect on what he considers "the big questions" in this debate. "If you transmitted your biometric data to a bank, who would be the owner? Could you ask the bank to eliminate them? "He asks. And he adds: "Could the bank pass this data to the police? I would have collected them for an application, but I would share them for other functions without their consent. " Jain believes that an eventuality like this would be something that "is wrong" and appeals to a taking of responsibility of the public powers. "The only way to control this is regulation by governments," he maintains.
Jain highlights the importance of new biometric technologies being used for socially relevant issues. Applying recognition of fingerprints in developing countries can solve problems such as the exchange of newborn children who are without identification. "In hospitals these babies can often be exchanged. We work so that they can be located, "he explains. The researcher emphasizes that precise identification can allow the correct allocation of fundamental resources to people in need. The pending challenges do not worry him. "The investigation is a path that requires patience, persistence and search," he said shortly before in his speech at the UAM.