The genealogy of a biometrics company


by David Moss
April 2008
Updated June 2008


ID card bidders jostle for position

A host of companies, including the big IT services companies such as CSC, IBM, EDS, Accenture, BT and Fujitsu Services, are expected to bid for contracts to build the £1bn biometric identity card system.

These systems integrators are being asked to put together consortia of biometrics companies that can deliver every part of the programme, from initially storing people’s fingerprint and facial details to manufacturing the cards and managing the database of biometric information.

The biometrics companies that expected to play a key role include Sagem of France, Nec of Japan, LG of South Korea, Dermalog of Germany as well as US companies L-1 Identity Solutions, Motorola, Cogent and Cross Match ...

Siemens Business Services, which works with the Identity and Passport Service on biometric passports, is thought to be in a strong position to win work with the ID cards scheme. Similarly, L-1 Identity Solutions, which provides technology for e-passports, is thought to be in pole position ...

Financial Times, Maija Palmer, 3 August 2007

If IPS keep to their timetable, biometrics contracts will soon be awarded for suppliers to the NIS. Who are these suppliers?

This is the family history of just one of the biometrics companies listed by the FT. There is a test at the end.

Once upon a time, there was a company called Visionics Corp. Visionics specialised in biometrics based on facial geometry. Their product, FaceIt, could compare the image of someone's face, caught on camera, with a database of stored images, at the rate of four million per minute, and identify that person whether or not he or she had grown a beard, started to wear glasses, gone bald, been photographed at an angle in poor light, etc ... At least, that's what it said on the Visionics website.

The Visionics website is no longer available.

According to The Times, whereas Visionics claimed 99.3% accuracy, when it was tested independently FaceIt actually managed to identify people only 51% of the time. That was in November 2003. A year earlier, the New Scientist reported the experience of Palm Beach International Airport in Florida when they tried to use FaceIt to clear recognised staff through security. It worked 47% of the time. The airport would have done better to toss a coin.

The same New Scientist article records also that, back in 1998, FaceIt was used in the London Borough of Newham to match images of people, caught by CCTV cameras in the street, to a database of known villains. FaceIt drove crime off the streets of Newham, it said on the now defunct Visionics website. That's not how the New Scientist tells it: "the police admitted to The Guardian newspaper that the Newham system had never even matched the face of a person on the street to a photo in its database of known offenders, let alone led to an arrest"*.

What with one thing and another, Visionics Corp. disappeared into Identix, Inc., a biometrics company specialising in fingerprinting. And when Atos Origin organised the consortium to conduct the UKPS biometrics enrolment trial in 2004, guess who they chose to supply the facial geometry and fingerprinting systems.

This time, FaceIt failed 31% of the time, with able-bodied participants in the trial, and 52% of the time with disabled participants, i.e. it was wrong more often than it was right. And the Identix fingerprinting system failed 19% of the time with the able-bodied and 20% with the disabled.

The UKPS (now IPS) trial tested not only facial geometry and fingerprinting biometrics, but also iris scanning. 10% of able-bodied participants could not even register their iris scan in the first place, using the system supplied by Iridian, let alone be subsequently matched/identified. For the disabled, that figure rose to 39%. In a national identity scheme based on iris scans, these people wouldn't even exist, they would have no electronic identity.

In December 2005, DVLA appointed Viisage, another facial geometry biometrics specialist, to conduct a trial to see if their collection of photographs could be used to automate driver identification. The answer seems to be no, and nothing came of it.

Except that Viisage then merged with Identix, Inc., to form ... L-1 Identity Solutions, Inc. And L-1 Identity Solutions subsequently completed the family, when it bought ... Iridian.

With its vital statistics of 51-47-31-52-19-20-10-39, L-1 Identity Solutions is described by the FT as being in "pole position" to win the biometrics contract for the National Identity Scheme, a scheme on which the nation's security could one day depend.

And they all lived biometrically ever after.

Question: why did the Prime Minister say, as he did on 17 January 2008, that biometrics "will make it possible to securely link an individual to a unique identity"?

That's where this article used to end but since then Naomi Klein has published 'China's All-Seeing Eye' in Rolling Stone magazine.

On a trip to China, she met Yao Ruoguang, managing director of Pixel Solutions, "a Chinese company that specializes in producing ... new high-tech national ID cards, as well as selling facial-recognition software to businesses and government agencies". China is holding a competition among suppliers like Pixel to see who can best match photographs of people to a database of 10 million faces and Yao's "secret weapon is that he will be using facial-recognition software purchased from L-1 Identity Solutions".

Given his secret weapon's vital statistics, Yao doesn't stand much chance of winning.

But that's by the by. Naomi Klein makes a different point.

Yao bought a licence to use the L-1 Identity Solutions biometrics systems. The company have helped him to configure the systems so that Pixel can take part in the 10 million face test and Yao has promised to "pay L-1 a certain percentage of our sales".

All of which looks illegal, prima facie, because it looks as if, since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the export of these goods and services from the US to China has been banned:

"When I put the L-1 scenario to the Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security – the division charged with enforcing the post-Tiananmen export controls – a representative says that software kits are subject to the sanctions if 'they are exported from the U.S. or are the foreign direct product of a U.S.-origin item'. Based on both criteria, the software kit sold to Yao seems to fall within the ban."

Which could account for the fact that China is not mentioned on the L-1 Identity Solutions website: "On its Website and in its reports to investors, L-1 boasts of contracts and negotiations with governments from Panama and Saudi Arabia to Mexico and Turkey. China, however, is conspicuously absent. And though CEO Bob LaPenta makes reference to 'some large international opportunities', not once does he mention Pixel Solutions in Guangzhou."

And which could account for the response from L-1 Identity Solutions when Naomi Klein first approached them: "We have nothing in China ... Nothing, absolutely nothing. We are uninvolved. We really don't have any relationships at all".

Question: can the UK government do business with L-1 Identity Solutions? Given that their products have a poor track record? And that they may be trading with China in contravention of US law?

* Has the technology improved since then? No. According to the German Federal Criminal Police Office in a report dated 17 July 2007, the technology is "not advanced enough", "unfit to be deployed" and "not a suitable system for surveillance".

David Moss has spent five years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.

© 2008 Business Consultancy Services Ltd
on behalf of Dematerialised ID Ltd