Unique Identifiers: A Closer Look at Biometric Technology in New Mexico

Biometrics_by Felicia Lujan_December2014

|Biometrics~ A digital composite by Felicia Lujan. This composite is composed of 13 layers, 8 masks, 3 color overlays, and a Gaussian blur. The composite includes images of binary code and components of ocular, palm vein, and voice recognition scans.|

**NOTE: This research was
not intended to promote or
renounce the use of biometric
systems, though I do find the
technology extremely interesting
and useful in most cases. I
understand that the use
of this technology is considered
controversial by some. I intend
to continue my exploration into
how biometric technology is
being used around the world
for the greater good.

I am an archivist with a deep love of technology, which is one reason I pursued a masters level certification in digital information management. A little over a week ago, I was in a meeting that reignited my interest in biometrics. I must admit that I was naïve in my assumption that my state was not a pioneer in this industry. First off, I didn’t know that the central nervous system of New Mexico state government (aka the State Data Center at the Department of Information Technology) utilizes biometric technology as a method of security. After that meeting I came home curious about how involved New Mexico is when it comes to biometric research and implementation. The writer, the researcher, the analyst, the special agent in me took over and that night I added biometric engineer to my list of dream jobs that I would love to have. So…what type of education does a biometric engineer need? Most commonly, a biometrics engineer has: a computer science degree; a computer language certification like Java or C++; and good problem-solving, people, and technical skills.

I found an informative link online titled “Become a Biometrics Engineer: Education and Career Roadmap.” Hum? Well, according to this plan, there are only 7 “popular schools” specializing in advancing a career in biometrics. The page said that “biometric technologies include complex equipment designed to analyze personal identification markers unique to each individual, such as fingerprints, ear lobes, vein patterns, voices, and iris shapes.” Through this research, I discovered that the technology is not limited to “individuals” or people here in New Mexico. I did know that biometric engineers were software developers, but there was a lot that I didn’t know before I embarked upon this research over the Thanksgiving break. Ear lobes? Veins? Hum? Didn’t know those were used as unique identifiers? We are all well aware of the TV shows touting the sexy use of biometrics, like CSI and most recently my beloved Scandal, but that’s just on TV right? A dead guy’s index finger couldn’t possibly be used to confirm his identity? Could it Shonda? Maybe I should ask Chien Le?

The most information dense white paper I discovered was written by Chien Le of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Washington University in November of 2011. Le wrote A Survey of Biometrics Security Systems and his research introduced biometric security systems. It also outlined application fields for biometric technologies, solutions, middle-ware and software, advantages and disadvantages, acronyms, and the future uses of biometrics. Damn! Chien Le beat me to the punch didn’t he?! Here it was…all laid out for my thirsty mind. Le’s paper says there are “seven basic criteria for biometric security systems.” These are “uniqueness, universality, permanence [hummm?? Do I hear digital preservation?], collectability, performance, accessibility and circumvention.” I don’t completely understand some of the criteria, but it was very useful to read over the types of biometric solutions outlined by Le. Current technologies include: facial recognition detectors, fingerprint readers, voice recognition, iris scanners, vein recognition, DNA biometric systems, and 2D barcode scanners, among others.

This technology can have good uses, but there are many privacy advocates who are against the use of any biometrics. In December of 2013, Scientific American published Biometric Security Poses Huge Privacy Risks by Oliver Munday with a byline which read “without explicit safeguards, your personal biometric data are destined for a government database.” The article starts with the sentence “security through biology is an enticing idea.” Yeah it is. Is that all it is though? An idea? I think not. Maybe I’m not worried about privacy as much as I should be? The article is basically a call to United States Congress for “lasting protections against the misuse of biometric data.” Munday quoted an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who seems to fear that biometric data will be used genetically to test for criminal predisposition. I’m actually not sure that’s a bad thing? I guess my only concerns at this point would be relative to health information and insurance coverage. When it comes to physical security and data security, personally, I think that biometric technology is necessary. It is a way to uniquely protect data, which in the end equals the preservation of knowledge and heightened security.

Over the weekend I started whittling through what I found. I read a great deal of articles and a few white papers before I started to look at projects going on closer to home. The more I researched this topic, the more information I found. I was most interested in how biometric systems actually work, so I focused my mind on the technical aspects. I had questions like…what are the major components of a biometric system? Who uses these systems? One of my questions was answered in Le’s paper. I have a sore throat now, so last night I wondered…what if a person needed to use voice recognition and something was wrong with their voice? How is that accounted for in designing a successful system? According to Le, there was no solution. A voice recognition system will not recognize a hoarse voice wave. So now that we have some background on the basics of biometrics, let’s take a look at what I found going on right here in my state. I was able to locate information on at least ten concrete areas where biometric technology is being used in New Mexico from at least 2003-2014. I’m sure there are many projects I missed, but frankly, this could be a thesis and maybe even a dissertation. This is just a quick look at highly visible projects I came across over the last week.

We will start with the New Mexico Department of Information Technology (DoIT) since it is a meeting with this office that rekindled my interest in this technology. DoIT is “responsible for infrastructure IT services provided 24x7x365 which includes: the State’s telecommunications system, two-way public safety radio, digital microwave, the State’s core data network and internet connectivity, and the State’s Data Center.” It is here, in the State Data Center where biometric technologies are being used for data security. I felt impressed with my state when I learned that and tomorrow I will get a tour of the center. “The State’s Data Center provides a secure facility with redundant power and cooling which houses many of the State’s critical IT systems including the State’s mainframe and agency servers. This division also provides enterprise system services which include the State’s consolidated email system…” It will be interesting to see what type of biometric security the agency is using as of late. I am guessing a finger or palm scanner?

The two strangest projects I found information on were tied to the use of biometrics on kids and animals in New Mexico. On April 3, 2013, there was a news release put out by KOAT (channel 7) titled Los Lunas School Offers Biometric Scans at Lunch. What? Seriously? Yes. Seriously. The school apparently tried to implement a palm vein scanner in the lunch room instead of good old meal tickets or cards. Parents were not happy about the suggestion of using infrared wavelengths (electromagnetic radiation) during the lunch hour to ID their children. The parents fought off the proposal which would have allowed scanners to recognize a unique vein pattern in the child’s palm and they won. I wasn’t sure which seemed stranger…scanning kids or scanning animals? I also read about how the New Mexico livestock industry is using Retinal Vascular Pattern (RVP) for livestock identification. RVP is the pattern of blood vessels at the back of the eye. It’s is being called the new way of branding animals. I wonder how ranchers feel about that since they must prefer the old burn and freeze methods? What’s a brand without cowboy symbology right?

I discovered that the national labs and the air force bases are also using biometrics. Of course, this was no surprise. I read a white paper Chris Aldridge prepared for Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in June of 2013. Sandia Report No. SAND2013-4922 is titled Mobile Biometric Device (MBD) Technology: Summary of Selected First Responder Experiences in Pilot Projects. This report was concentrated on the use of MBDs to enroll individuals in databases and perform “identification checks of subjects in the field area,” for “military, law enforcement, and homeland security operations.” The report was a multi-agency/multi-state project with 3M Cogent Systems and involved: Iowa, Colorado, California, D.C., Texas, Washington (Seattle), Arizona, Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois, Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Idaho. I think the most interesting part of this study used a “mock prison riot” for first responders out of West Virginia. We all know how critical that information is given New Mexico’s prison riot history. Many of the agencies studied for this report are using “Fusion devices.” Fusion was developed by 3M Cogent Systems for the Department of Defense. A large part of studies in this field are tied to law enforcement, but currently the technology trend is leaning towards cyber security.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) says biometrics are important because they: secure facilities, protect access to computer networks, counter fraud, screen people at our borders, and fight crime. The NIST says this technology is used to manage identities for: first responders at the scene of a natural disaster, border patrol, soldiers in theater, and police officers on the street. It makes sense that the following projects are closely related to the projects cited in the Sandia report. In New Mexico, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) uses the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) to support criminal justice DNA databases. The National DNA Index System or NDIS is part of CODIS. The FBI uses biometrics to analyze data from DNA databases and for latent print analysis. Holloman Air Force Base is using the 49th Security Forces Defense Biometric Identification System which is comprised of hand-held scanners. The scanners are used to screen people entering the base to verify the access authorization. Identity is established using barcode technology and fingerprints. In February of 2011, it was announced that Santa Fe County was using biometrics to “remove aliens convicted of a crime.” It can also be noted that between 2003 and 2005, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) researched the use of biometrics in handgun grips while working with a New Mexico biometrics company. The NAE was interested in developing biometric grip sensors, but a 2005 report declared the tests a failure.

I also located evidence of the health care systems in New Mexico using biometric technology. The University of New Mexico Hospital (UNMH) offers Biometrics Screening Services as part of Employee Health Plans. These screenings are said to align with recommendations of the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Ommmm…Maybe this is where my privacy fears rest? In 2013, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine released a Joint Consensus Statement on Biometric Health Screening for Employers. According to the “statement,” the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines biometric screenings as “the measurement of physical characteristics such as height, weight, BMI, blood pressure, blood cholesterol, blood glucose, and aerobic fitness that can be taken at the worksite and used as part of a workplace health assessment to benchmark and evaluate changes in employee health status over time.” I am a fitness freak, but that seems crazy? What if something is wrong with me and I don’t know? The statement outlines the “purpose of screenings” and I found it kind of scary. What if they find out I experience shortness of breath or I’m genetically predisposed to cancer? Will they drop me from my insurance plan?

In New Mexico health circles, I also located a “Fingerprint Techniques Manual,” which was prepared by the New Mexico Department of Health. The manual had very interesting graphic illustrations on the fundamentals of fingerprints. This training tool covered from patterns to arches to loops to lines to deltas to cores to whorls to scars of the fingerprints. The machines can read all these intricate things. The Division of Health Improvement uses this technology as part of the Caregivers Criminal History Screening Program. Makes more sense than the biometric screenings. I feel comfortable with this use. This type of use can protect people from abuse or other forms of criminal activity. I was rather impressed with the 36 page manual. It reminded me that about 15 years ago I applied for a finger print technician position with the Department of Public Safety. I was crushed to learn that these people don’t make very much. I don’t know…I guess you have to be a biometrics engineer to make it out there!? What I do know is that I found a great deal of information about how New Mexico is actively participating in the biometric industry.

I gained useful knowledge through this research into biometrics and then regurgitating what I learned. My son just asked me what I was writing about and when I told him he looked at me with the curiosity that I love and see in myself. I told him “I’m writing about biometrics. Do you know what that is?” I explained with words and then decided it was easier to show a nine year old a catchy tech video with visual candy. Together we learned about the future of biometric systems. Between October and November of this year there were several videos on the use biometric technology. The National Science Foundation released information on a project by a young man studying the use of ocular biometrics in the video game industry for disabled people. In October the Telegraph out of the United Kingdom released a video declaring that we would simply kill passwords with biometrics and CBS news declared that biometric palm scans will help keep hospitals secure.

The future of biometrics is here. It is everywhere and happening all around us. Biometrics is about identifying who we are and not who we say we are. Tonight I learned that the most accurate method for a biometric reading is the heartbeat or an electrocardiogram (ECG). Makes sense ha? It’s symbolic actually. Symbolic because the heart is at our biometric core. It is the giver of life. The heart represents how we feel and who we are. That beat is indeed is a unique identifier.


News release, Santa Fe County and All New Mexico Now Benefit from ICE Strategy to Use Biometrics to Identify and Remove Aliens Convicted of a Crime, released on ice.gov, February 15, 2011

White paper, A Survey of Biometrics Security Systems by Chien Le, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Washington University, November 28, 2011

News release, Los Lunas School Offers Biometric Scans at Lunch, released on koat.com, April 3, 2013

White paper, Mobile Biometric Device (MBD) Technology: Summary of Selected First Responder Experiences in Pilot Projects by Chris Aldridge, Sandia Report No. SAND2013-4922, prepared by Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, June 2013

Article, Biometric Security Poses Huge Privacy Risks by Oliver Munday, released on scientificamerican.com, December 17, 2013

Publication, Fingerprint Techniques Manual, prepared by New Mexico Department of Health, Division of Health Improvement, Caregivers Criminal History Screening Program, no date

Various internet searches for basic information in articles and videos

Explore posts in the same categories: Analysis, Awesomeness, Biology, Body and Mind, Computational Science, Computer Programming, Computers, Digital Composites, Digital Issues, DNA, Edification, Genetics, Graphic Design, Intellect, Interesting Finds, Knowledge, Mind Melt, New Mexico, Professional Endeavors, Research Papers, Santa Fe, Scholarship, Science, Scientists, Software and Hardware, Studies, Symbols and Imagery, Technology, Video Games, Worthy Reads, Writers, Writing

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