Fingerprint tech steps up

Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint. 

The intelligence community's research arm has two programs set to begin in the coming weeks aimed at detecting fake fingerprints and developing devices to collect fingerprint data without a human operator.

The two aren't linked efforts, according to Chris Boehnen, senior program manager at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, but they could be used in a wide range of applications once they're made into real devices.

IARPA's Odin program, set to begin with four prime developers in early March, aims to develop detection technologies that can sense "presentation attacks" on biometric devices, such as fingerprint sensors.  

Another IARPA program, called N2N, is set to start in the coming days and looks to "nudge" advances in high-resolution fingerprint devices towards federal government's needs, including higher-resolution, contactless technology, Boehnen said.

Boehnen told FCW Odin is a three-phase, four-year long program that will test "presentation attacks" for fingerprints. Presentation attacks, he said, try to "spoof" real-world physical biometric samples, like fake fingerprints.

Prosthetic fingers, faked fingerprints built with wood glue or other substances and other techniques can confuse current fingerprint sensors, Boehnen said. Such defeats of biometic sensors are likely to continue in light of the ways criminals are adapting to the high-tech law enforcement toolkit, he added.

"The bad guys are intent on beating our [biometric] systems, he said. "Biometrics security now is like internet security was back in the late ‘90s" when not many people thought to use firewalls to protect their computers. Biometric identification technologies are currently in a transformative period similar to that of computing technology back then, he said.

Combatting spoofing is important to federal agencies that screen for terrorists trying to evade detection or gain access to other locations.  That's why IARPA is interested in funding private-sector research into the technology. The tech, he said, can also be used to combat fraud in the civilian world, making it marketable beyond the federal government's use.

IARPA's other upcoming fingerprint tech effort, called N2N, is set up as a $100,000 prize challenge for commercial providers who have been developing advanced fingerprint capabilities. N2N stands for "Nail-to-Nail" fingerprints, which offer more details than a surface "slap" fingerprint. N2N fingerprints, however, require an expert human facilitator to obtain, making wholesale collection a problem.

The extra fingerprint information in an N2N print can be used to identify "latent" or partial fingerprints at crime scenes as well as for other applications, he said.

Additionally, N2N could tap into contactless fingerprinting technology, which can read fingerprints without having the subject touch anything.

Contactless and nail-to-nail fingerprinting technologies are being developed in the commercial world, Boehnen said.  They're developing so quickly, however, they lack certification for government use.

"The commercial sector doesn't really need nail-to-nail" fingerprints, he said, but IARPA is hoping to "nudge industry" towards the technology to get the capabilities.

The prize challenge, Boehnen said, provides a good venue to see if existing technology works without having to invest substantial federal research and development money.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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