They Spy on Your Little Eye
Iris had been attracting inquiring minds for millennia. Named after the Greek word for rainbow, this intricate part of our ocular system was believed to conceal a caboodle of mysteries. For example, Philip Meyen von Coburg in 1665 wrote on iridology — a nearly occult science that could help diagnose a person’s health condition through the subtle changes in their irises.
Identifying a person with their irises was suggested in the late 19th century. The police officer Alphonse Bertillon, while dealing with the Parisian cutthroats, pickpockets and wenches, also invested some time in his passion: forensic biometrics. It was the time when liveness definition didn’t even exist!
Monsieur Bertillon struggled to find a foolproof way to quickly identify any person on Earth. Apart from compiling a pristine fingerprint database, he also suggested the Tableau des nuances de l’iris humain — a table where anatomical intricacies of human iris were described.
Skipforward to 1949 A brilliant ophthalmologist James H. Doggart writes that iris and fingerprints are actually similar to each other in terms of “minute architecture” that is unique from one person to another. A few years later this idea was echoed by a physician F.H. Adler who boldly proposed to use iris photographs “as a means of identification, instead of fingerprints.”
Understandably, the Adler’s idea was shelved: you can’t really dip someone’s eyes into raw cacao powder to lift the iris prints. Besides, an iris cartotheque (or dataset) would be costly to produce. First, you would need a really expensive camera that could capture the labyrinthine patterns of an iris in color — color photography was still an extravagant rarity back then. Add to it film prices plus atrocious development costs and voilà: fingerprints were just cheaper and quicker to obtain.
What was hardly fathomable 70 years ago can become a mundane practice today. The fabulous tandem of a sensitive infrared camera and AI can quickly identify a person and give them a green light or, on the contrary, raise an alarm.
The reason why scholars of the past and American sheriffs of today favor iris identification is that it’s16 times more accurate than fingerprint identification. While the thin friction ridges on our fingertips are usually verified through 16 key points, the iris can offer 260 verification key points, which makes misidentification virtually impossible.
Some may voice a concern that fingerprints are a tried-and-true method, which is hard to fool. After all, no human has a set of ridges, whorls and valley patterns identical to those of another person!
Well, the same applies to irises too. It is estimated that the probability of two people having identical irises is 1078. This is even higher than two people having identical fingerprints, which is estimated to be 1 in 64 billion. Even twins can’t boast of this luxury, nope.
Iris identification isn’t news of tomorrow, by the way. In India, the Aadhaar program (‘foundation’ in Hindi) has been active since 2009. The idea of Aadhaar is to let a citizen get a unique 12-digit verification number that serves as a full-blown ID.
And one of the ways to get enrolled and verified is through the iris recognition. For that purpose, a series of cheap $200 tablets capable of identifying people’s irises were released. About 95% of India’s 1.38 billion citizens have obtained Aadhaar cards as of today.
Another reason why iris identification has been attracting attention lately is that it’s fully contactless. Indeed, even though Covid-19 pandemic seems to be waning like a ghost in the dawn light, people are still paranoid about touching handrails, door knobs, and other potentially infected surfaces. A fingerprint scanner is one of them.
But despite its plentiful perks, iris verification raises concerns among critics. While some believe that it can lead to privacy violation in the future, others note that iris identification avidly used by the border control may result in racial profiling.
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