'Soft' Biometric Cameras Are Watching: Govt. Intelligence Hopes To Use Cameras To Recognize People By The Shape Of Their Ears

By Rhonda J. Miller on December 2, 2013 9:23 AM EST

Facial Recognition Research Intensifies
Research on facial recognition technology is being stepped up to include 'soft' biometrics, such as using ears as a unique element of identificaiton. (Photo: Igor Stevanovic / Rhonda J. Miller)

Facial recognition has become an increasingly common element in security surveillance, enabling identification of faces in images taken from a distance and in a crowd. But facial recognition is just a step along the way to more and better identification techniques being sought by the U.S. government's Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). The agency has challenged top research teams to revolutionize how machines recognize people with a competition announced Nov. 8, according to New Scientist magazine. 

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The announcement on the IARPA website, dated Nov. 8 said, "Intelligence analysts often rely on facial images to assist in establishing the identity of an individual, but the sheer volume of possibly relevant video and photographs can be daunting.  While automated face recognition tools can assist analysts in this task, current tools perform best on well-posed, frontal facial photos taken for identification purposes...IARPA seeks dramatic improvements in unconstrained face recognition by funding rigorous, high-quality research drawing on a variety of fields to develop novel representations to encode the shape, texture, and dynamics of a face and new ways to use these techniques for faster and more accurate search and retrieval."

The typical approach requires sorting through frame after frame of camera footage to find ones that offer a good chance for identification, then to attempt to match those images with an existing database, according to New Scientist.

"One of the goals of the IARPA challenge is to see what you can do with discarded data," said Mary Ann Harrison of the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation in Fairmont. The data has "soft" biometrics such as height, gait or what may seem, at first glance, an underutilized body part for identification — ears.  "Our main focus has been on ear recognition," said Harrison. "The evidence is that the structure is unique to each person. There is a whole science of the structure of the ears."

In sudden large-scale tragedies like the bombing at the Boston Marathon in April, it took an army of trained professionals several days of poring over footage from cameras to lead to identification. The use of advanced soft biometrics would result in faster and more flexible tracking that could assist law enforcement in those types of events, said Bir Bhanu, founding director of the Center for Research in Intelligent Systems and director of the Visualization and Intelligent Systems Laboratory at the University of California Riverside, according to New Scientist.

The use of biometrics in the consumer world is often greeted with eagerness, although there are some who warn caution. "Following the much-heralded release of Apple's new fingerprint sensor-enabled iPhone 5s, the European Association for Biometrics (EAB) has welcomed the widespread use of such biometrics, but warns that privacy and security must be safeguarded at all times," according to an article on planetbiometrics.com  EAB made the comments in a new position paper that followed Apple's new phone launch, but said the comments were applicable to mobile devices in general. According to EAB, a key reason for the delayed acceptance of large scale biometric applications by the commercial sector appears to be privacy concerns of consumers.

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