NIST puts fingerprints to the test

A wide-ranging study of biometric fingerprint systems recently published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology could finally put to rest nagging doubts about the technology and help boost its use.

The NIST study examined 34 commercially available systems used to match fingerprints and was the most extensive test of the technology ever conducted by a government agency. It used a database of more than 48,000 sets of prints.

"There's always been concern over the accuracy and reliability of the technology," said James Jasinski, executive vice president of Cogent Systems Inc. "This study does validate [fingerprint matching] as a very accurate and reliable biometric."

The technology could also help bring stability to the market. Although several agencies have conducted tests for their own purposes, fingerprint-matching tools have generally been considered to offer little in the way of worthwhile comparison, even though fingerprints are the most widely used biometric.

But NIST, which is one of the world's premier standards and testing bodies, is widely respected in the marketplace and its studies are highly regarded. For that reason, industry and agency officials think the recent study will elevate the discussion.

"It's really the first broad test and the first independent validation of the science of fingerprints," said Glen McNeil, director of strategic engineering for Sagem Morpho Inc. The Fingerprint Vendor Technology Evaluation (FpTVE) 2003 was conducted on behalf of the Justice Department and fulfills part of NIST's mandate under the Patriot Act to certify biometric technologies that may be used in the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program.

The results of the study could also be used as the basis for the design and acquisition of other large-scale fingerprint identification systems, NIST officials said. FpTVE 2003 evaluations, conducted from October through November 2003, used operational sets of fingerprints culled

from several agencies such as the FBI and the Homeland Security Department.

They were designed to meet the requirements for both large-scale and small-scale real world applications and included multiple tests performed with combinations of fingers — single fingers, two index fingers and four to 10 fingers at a time — as well as different types and qualities of fingerprints obtained in various ways.

The database of fingerprints used in FpTVE is not as large as some of the multimillion fingerprint databases used by some government agencies, said Charles Wilson, manager of NIST's image group and the lead on the Patriot testing, but it is the most representative sampling. "It's the most exhaustive such database of fingerprints ever assembled in the federal government," he said.

From the evaluations of the commercial systems provided by 18 companies, the NIST study concluded that the most accurate were from Cogent, NEC Corp. and Sagem. The best system was accurate 98.6 percent of the time on single-finger tests, 99.6 percent on two-finger tests and 99.9 percent on tests involving four or more fingers.

The NIST study by itself is unlikely to be enough to boost sales of fingerprint systems, said Jasinski, because customers have their own agendas and different applications for which they want to use the systems.

Factors such as throughput, response time and cost also play major roles in what systems users eventually adopt, he said. And for the much larger databases that most agencies would employ, they would have to do additional testing, McNeil said.

However, he added that with the NIST study, they now have an unbiased and scientific basis for conducting those tests.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

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FINGERPRINT FINDINGS

The National Institute of Standards and Technology's recent evaluation of commercial fingerprint matching, identification and verification systems produced a number of conclusions:

Accuracy can vary dramatically based on fingerprint characteristics or type of data.

Incorrect matching information, such as one person having fingerprint sets under different names or IDs, is a pervasive problem and limits the technology's accuracy.

The systems are broken into tiers of accuracy, with products from NEC Corp., Sagem Morpho Inc. and Cogent Systems Inc. in the top tier, and products from Dermalog Identification Systems GmbH and Motorola Inc. leading the next tier.

The most accurate systems were highly accurate, with NEC's technology capable of identifying more than 98 percent of fingerprint matches in every subtest with false acceptance rates of 0.01 percent.

Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology

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