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Biometrics and the standardisation of facial recognition

Committee representative Peter Campbell explains how standards underpin passport security.

Peter Campbell

Peter Campbell - SC37 committee representative

Invisible to the millions of passengers transiting across the world each year, tiny cameras at border security scan the distinct contours of millions of faces to ensure people are who they claim to be.

Behind the cameras sits algorithms checking the intricate details in biometrics – the height of cheek bones, curve of the jaw, shape of the brow. Behind this algorithm sits standards tying together the technology with the protocols and policies for record keeping, privacy and accessibility for the right people. Finally, behind the numerous standards sit a global network of experts combining their decades of experience to shape best practice.

New Zealand leads the way for secure passports

One of these experts is Wellington-based facial recognition expert Peter Campbell, a Technical Business Advisor with the Department of Internal Affairs. In 1992 Peter joined the Department of Internal Affairs as the Systems Manager for the new Passport System. ‘Back then New Zealand was one of the only countries to retain passport images, which fed into much of what we’ve learned about the subtle facial changes over time that biometrics need to be able to recognise,’ says Peter.

Encouraging future adjudicators

‘Technology is only as good as the records it matches against, and New Zealand was leading the way in record keeping long before other countries. For biometrics to work you have to be able to match to a known and trusted source of data and your face is the hardest biometric to copy. 

Software augments and automates human skills, and the technology has brought a better understanding of the human factor in facial recognition matching. A great way to understand some of the skill behind these standards is through the facial recognition adjudication ability test available through the University of New South Wales (UNSW).’

Forensic Psychology Lab’s face test: Are you a super recogniser? – UNSW(external link)

SC37 working groups shape specific standards

Since 2011, when DIA took over representation from New Zealand Customs, Peter has sat on the sub-committee 37 (SC37) which consists of six working groups with around 40 international representatives. The groups cover:

  • harmonised biometric vocabulary – so countries are all talking the same technical language
  • biometric technical interfaces – so countries can all use the same software
  • biometrics data interchange formats – so information shared can be understood
  • technical implementation of biometric systems – so the technology supports the software and everything behind it
  • biometric testing and reporting for improvement and accountability, and
  • cross jurisdictional and societal aspects of biometrics – to manage the ethics and political aspects behind the technology.

Protecting you against fraud

‘In the development of standards, New Zealand has as much contribution and voting power as larger countries - testament to our ability to impact global standards. We’ve helped set the parameters for image quality used in passports and New Zealand passports are one of the most technologically advanced in the world. The inclusion of standards-based biometrics in passports since 2005 has dramatically reduced counterfeiting and fraud, even supporting 10-year passports as biometrics understands the changes in faces compared with older photos.’

‘SC37 participants are primarily from vendor environments, academia, and governments. It is very important for government participation in the facial recognition standards arena to voice their concerns to ensure that vendors don’t wash over or ignore passport (government) requirements. Passports is one of the highest users of facial recognition worldwide.’

‘Most ISO standards are only available by purchase, though the freely available Portrait Quality Technical Report available from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) illustrates the technical detail that goes behind some of the standards.’

Technical Report on Portrait Quality – ICAO [PDF, 5.6MB](external link)

The future of facial recognition

‘Developing standards for biometrics takes around five years from new work items raised to developing a draft, subsequent distribution, discussion and revision and then final draft. When we publish a revision, we then get started on the next. Currently we are looking at the readability of chips and societal aspects such as signage at smart gates, and standards for pictographs to make instructions clearer.’

‘The standards aren’t just applicable to passports. Standards for facial recognition can also support searching for missing children to help identify them as they would age, or they can support identity management for any future major incidence responses like the massive Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. We’re also looking at the ethical use of biometrics and continuous improvement of standards, particularly around the mistrust when CCTV gets it wrong. There’s exciting work going on at US-based National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) looking at facial recognition for paperless travel and immigration – so your face becomes your boarding pass!’

‘We always keep an eye to the future and investigating and countering threats. For example, software now exists that takes your personal image and makes tiny pixel-level changes that are invisible to the human eye. These changes are not detected by facial recognition systems. Artificial intelligence and ‘deepfake’ remain a growing threat, however advances by the University of Chicago in creating ‘image cloaking’ software can prevent images being taken from social media and used in privately created invasive tools for monitoring and tracking using deep learning.’

Connect across the world

‘It’s the exposure to new technologies and applications of standards that is one of the benefits of committee participation. You build a wide and varied network of colleagues from across the world, which can be helpful when working in a skills niche. Meetings are usually held in person, though in Covid times and with a couple of participants from Australia and one representative each from New Zealand, Chile and South Africa, the remainder are from the northern hemisphere, so we often get the graveyard shift for meetings.’

Get involved

If Peter’s experience makes you want to consider committee participation you can find current international vacancies here:

ISO and IEC Technical Committee participation

Standards New Zealand provides access to thousands of international standards, and the range of biometrics-related standards are available in our webshop.