image title

What's next for iris-recognition systems?

March 16, 2021

ASU computer scientist says new tech may render passports and other forms of identification obsolete

It’s been said that the eyes are the window into the soul. And sometime in the very near future, they may possibly be the window into your personal identification.

The Dubai International Airport is in the process of installing a new iris recognition system that will ultimately render passports and other forms of identification obsolete. The process literally takes seconds: passengers walk through an “intelligence gate" that reads and identifies their iris codes. The hope is to achieve better accuracy and reduce long and sluggish waits through security lines.

While the science-fiction sounding advancement has made worldwide headlines, this is not news to Subbarao Kambhampati, a computer scientist at Arizona State University.

“In many ways the future is already here, but we just don’t know it,” said Kambhampati, a professor in ASU’s School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering and the former president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. He also studies fundamental problems in planning and decision-making, motivated in particular by the challenges of human-aware AI systems.

ASU News spoke to Kambhampati about these emerging technologies, how they are used in the United States, and how they might impact the rest of the world.

Man with grey hair and glasses

Subbarao Kambhampati

Question: Were you surprised that Dubai International Airport is about to employ facial and retinal recognition for security?

Answer: No, not at all. This technology has been around for nearly 30 years and has found increasing use, including in your smartphones. In India there were even plans to make iris recognition technology in the national identity cards as an easy way to verify/confirm the identities. But now in addition to iris recognition and retinal recognition, there’s also face recognition technology (e.g. Face ID in iPhones) that’s even less invasive.

Q: I can see how a fingerprint has its own unique characteristics in identifying someone because you can actually see the swirl patterns. How does an iris act as a fingerprint?

A: It’s the same concept. The patterns on the iris (the colored part of our eyes) are unique to every individual; features are derived from these patterns, which are then combined to produce an iris code. These codes are even more unique and accurate than a fingerprint. Iris scans are also less invasive — you don’t need to stop and affix your fingerprint; an infrared photo of the iris is sufficient. One interesting thing is that it’s harder to take your fingerprint than to take your iris signature without your knowledge. And, of course, that becomes another issue.

Q: The issue of privacy?

A: Yes, because without your knowledge, I can take your iris identification without touching or collecting anything physically from you. The technology is such that I could even gather your identification from the reflection in the rearview mirror of your car. The ease of identification is even higher with facial recognition. You could be walking on a public street and I could identify you from the picture of the crowds. Cathay Pacific Airlines uses a boarding system that just reads your face using face-ID technology instead of checking your passport. Iris- and retinal-recognition technology has been in use for a longer time but face recognition is now here.

The biggest issue people and civil society organizations have with these recognition technologies is basically the notion that you are losing privacy in public spaces. If you are walking down the street, you don’t expect a camera to be taking your picture and running it through a system and doing a check on you. This, however, is what has been happening pretty regularly in places like China. They use it on their traffic lights and use it while people are waiting at the intersections, and can even cite you if you are jaywalking.  

Even here in the U.S., some police departments have already been using face-recognition software for some time. It was reportedly used to help identify many of the people who rioted at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and now more than 300 people have been arrested. Some cities won’t allow it, but others do. This lack of privacy in public spaces is definitely something people are worried about.

Q: How is the accuracy on these technologies?

A: Accuracy is higher for iris recognition compared to a fingerprint, but these are also not infallible. Researchers have also shown that these systems can be attacked. For example, there are hacks that will allow one to bypass the Samsung iris-based cell phone lock. Accuracy of face recognition technologies is more controversial. While they are good for “majority” classes, their error rates have been shown to be higher for minorities.

Q: Does it ever astound or amaze you that technology we’ve seen in science fiction movies decades ago is now a reality?

A: Yes and no. On the one hand, frictionless identification technologies have been a staple of such movies, and it is interesting to see these become part of our day-to-day lives. On the other hand, the impacts of these on privacy and surveillance do still come as an unpleasant surprise as these movies only speak to the rosy side of these technologies. 

Top image courtesy of iStock/Getty Images.

Reporter , ASU News


image title

Former Sen. Jeff Flake talks extremism in US politics with ASU community

March 16, 2021

Anti-democratic violence and Trump's second impeachment trial were topics of discussion at recent Q&A

portrait of former U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake

Former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake

For the second time in less than a year — a tumultuous one for a number of reasons, politically, socially and economically — former U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake spoke to the ASU community, fielding questions on the recent rise in anti-democratic violence in the U.S., the Capitol insurrection and the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump.

The March 15 virtual discussion was hosted by Arizona State University's School of Politics and Global Studies, with American government expert and Senior Lecturer Gina Woodall serving as moderator.

Woodall introduced Flake, who joined ASU in December as a distinguished dean fellow with The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a role that involves conducting seminars, visiting classrooms, giving public lectures, meeting with students one-on-one and more.

During Monday’s discussion, Flake reflected on his political coming-of-age in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” mantra and Sen. Barry Goldwater’s “rugged individualism” inspired him to align himself with the Republican Party. But by the time Flake got to Congress in 2001, he said, the party’s interest in such ideas was already beginning to wane.

“I would argue that today … it's changed very much. It's more … about culture wars,” Flake said, and less about the traditional ideas that used to define the Republican Party, such as “limited government, economic freedom, free trade (and) strong American leadership.”

It’s that shift that Flake argued has resulted in the party losing power.

“Republicans lost the House of Representatives in 2018. We lost the Senate. In 2020, we lost the White House, and in 2018, I believe we lost more than 400 legislative seats nationwide. … I believe that this should have led to more introspection than it has,” Flake said.

In one of her questions to Flake, Woodall asked him his thoughts on a recent New York Times article that reported the results of a survey of roughly 1,200 Republican voters that revealed five factions of the party that have emerged following Trump’s presidency:

  • Trump Boosters — 28% of those surveyed fell into this category, defined as those who “approve of how Mr. Trump did his job, but only a slight majority of them support him being the nominee again, and they are more supportive of the Republican Party than Mr. Trump personally.”
  • Die-hard Trumpers — about 27% of those surveyed fell into this category, defined as “supporters of the former president who would back him in a hypothetical primary regardless of who else was running but who don’t believe in QAnon conspiracy theories.”
  • Post-Trump G.O.P. — 20% of those surveyed fell into this category, defined as those “who like Mr. Trump but want to see someone else as the party’s nominee.”
  • Never Trumpers — about 15% of those surveyed fell into this category, defined as those who would never support Trump as the party’s nominee.
  • Infowars G.O.P. — about 10% of those surveyed fell into this category, defined as those who “view QAnon conspiracy theories favorably and believe in many of them.”

Flake called the results of the survey “sobering, to say the least.”

The article also reported that 57% of Republicans polled said they would support Trump in an election again, which Flake believes is not enough to warrant him running again.

“If you're trying to find a more ‘Trump-y’ group around the country, I don't think you could find a more ‘Trump-y’ group than among CPACConservative Political Action Conference followers, and if you can only get 57% of them to say, ‘Run again,’ then you shouldn't run again,” Flake said.

“And I maintain that (Trump) has no intention of running again. He certainly wants to keep that floated out because he's more relevant the longer that is out, and he likely could … win the Republican primary. But he knows well, I believe, and most Republicans know, that that he wouldn't win the general. He lost the last one by 7 million votes (and) 72 electoral votes. There's no indication that it should be any different next time. But there still is the problem of (Trump) maintaining a big influence on the party and endorsing candidates that will win the primary but then go on and lose a general election.”

One solution to that, which both Woodall and Flake agreed on, could be ranked-choice voting.

”If anything is going to save the Republican Party, it's reforms like that,” Flake said, “but it will be very much opposed by party officials and those on the extremes; that subset of a subset of a subset that controls Republican primaries, and on the Democratic side, the more progressive or liberal Democrats won't favor it either. But I think, frankly, there may be enough in the middle where we could get it passed.”

Here’s more of what Flake had to say …

On the recent rise in anti-democratic violence in the U.S. and how it may affect our relationship with other countries:

“Obviously it makes it more difficult,” Flake said. To demonstrate this point, he referenced a tweet by President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe, who accused the U.S. government of losing its moral right to condemn other nations for their democratic processes after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“He wasn't the only one,” Flake said. “There were dictators and tyrants around the world celebrating (that it became) more difficult for us to have the moral authority … to encourage countries to move toward freedom.”

On the Capitol insurrection:

“I was at the Capitol for some really strange events that I never thought I'd see. Awful events (like) 9/11,” Flake said. “But I never thought I’d see anything like (the insurrection on Jan. 6). … I would never (have thought) that Americans would attack their Capitol as they did, and try to overturn a legitimate election, really at the encouragement of the president who lost the election.”

On the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump:

“I thought it was going to be a difficult sell when the president was already out of office,” Flake said. “The main remedy impeachment brings is removal. And when he was already removed, that was just an easy excuse for Republicans to say we shouldn't do it. Now, had I been in the Senate, I would have voted to convict him. … If it's not an impeachable offense to encourage a mob to storm the Capitol to overturn an election that you lost … I mean … I think that that justifies impeachment.”

Woodall followed up by asking Flake whether he thought Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which states that any person who has taken an oath to protect the Constitution can be barred from holding office if they participated in an insurrection against the United States, could or should be applied to prevent Trump from running again.

“That would simply, I think, make more of a martyr out of the president,” Flake said, reminding discussion attendees that he doesn’t foresee Trump running again anyway. “Former President Trump is losing influence daily. It's just very difficult, no matter who you are, to maintain influence once you lose the trappings of the office and the levers of power, and in today's world, when you lose your Twitter platform. … Trump (support) isn't so much a philosophy as it is an attitude. You know, ‘We're tough, we're owning the libs … And it relies on winning. And that's why (Trump) has been so reluctant to admit that he lost.”

View a recording of the full conversation.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay