Canadian Defense Department Report Says Facial Biometrics Still Unproven

OTTAWA (CP) - An internal federal report raises questions about the effectiveness of electronic photo-matching technology, a technique the Passport Office plans to use in an effort to prevent terrorists from obtaining travel documents.

The office recently tested a computer program that compares an image of a face with thousands of other mugshot-style photos and zeroes in on possible matches.

The government report, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, says while a digital system has the potential to sift through large batches of pictures and return likely matches, ``its suitability for this purpose remains uncertain.''

The report, which examined various biometric applications, was completed by consultants in March for the Communications Security Establishment. CSE, a secretive agency of the Defence Department, has the dual role of spying on foreign communications and helping shield government computer networks from intrusion.

The report looked at security techniques that measure personal or physical characteristics including the scanning of a finger, hand, iris, voice or signature.

The assessment cites a number of disadvantages to facial-scan systems:

- Questionable accuracy, given that angles, lighting and distance can affect image recognition.

- Use of disguises to fool the computer. ``Changes in hairstyle, facial hair reduce matching capabilities.''

- Variable performance depending on ethnicity of the pictured person; and

- Public association of the technique with criminal mug shots.

At the same time, the report notes several positive aspects of the technology, including its lack of intrusiveness and the potential to work with existing databases of photos.

In addition, photos are already widely used as a form of identification for driver's licences and other documents with wide public acceptance.

The Passport Office's screening initiative has prompted concerns among those who fear it could falsely tag applicants as suspected terrorists.

In preliminary tests, the computer system matched photos correctly 75 to 90 per cent of the time, depending on image quality and the overall number of photos in the database.

It's too early to comment on the potential effectiveness of the plan, said Dan Kingsbury, a spokesman for the Passport Office.

``We don't even have a contract in place. It's very, very much in the pilot project phase.''

No date has been set for implementing the system, Kingsbury added.

The report notes that notwithstanding doubts about whether facial-scan technology works, the U.S. government is expending significant efforts to use it in support of surveillance and identification applications.

Enhanced security, cost savings and ease of use are among the reasons the Canadian government should consider use of biometric-based technologies, the report says.

Passport officials have discussed the facial-scan project with the federal privacy commissioner's office. The report stresses the importance of protecting personal information in the use of biometrics, since there is a direct link to an individual's identity. In some cases, a scan may even reveal the presence of conditions such as diabetes or Down's Syndrome. All biometric programs are technically problematic for a small number of people, the report adds. For instance, some have fingerprints or eyes that simply cannot be measured.