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Eye Scans Meet Federal ID Cards

National Institute for Standards and Technology ruling gives government agencies the option to use use iris scans instead of fingerprints to identify card holder.

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The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) has released new guidelines that broaden the options for verifying individuals using biometric identification methods. By adding iris images and on-card fingerprint comparison to Personal Identity Verification (PIV) cards, federal agencies could achieve "stronger security and greater operational flexibility," NIST said.

The guidelines, published on Friday, say that agencies may add iris images as an alternate to fingerprints. According to NIST, collecting fingerprints can be difficult in instances where fingers are too dry to produce a good image, lotions are used, or skin is wounded. Images of one or both irises -- compact at no more than 3 kilobytes each -- can be loaded on the PIV card for faster reading times. The document includes specifications for iris biometrics and iris cameras to ensure interoperability across agencies using iris recognition technology.

The guidelines also explain how to place one or two compact fingerprint templates and a recognition algorithm on the card. This identification method can be used when an employee is signing a document digitally or opening a secure file.

[ These mobile apps from the government are must haves. Read 10 Helpful Apps From Uncle Sam. ]

NIST provided an example of a person placing his finger on a reader attached to a keyboard for confirmation of identity, versus typing in a personal identification number (PIN). During an authentication attempt, the templates can be compared on the reader device. The cardholder must enter a PIN number to release the templates, thereby meeting Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) for the multi-factor authentication.

The new provision expands the options for agencies issuing PIV cards, which are used by federal employees and contractors to access government facilities and computer networks. A PIV card typically includes a photo, fingerprint information, personal identification number (PIN) and a cryptographic credential, which is computer-generated data recognized only by the PIV system.

The new guidelines are the latest in a move to PIV mandated by Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (HSPD 12), a federal cybersecurity initiative the government created to increase security and efficiency and reduce identity fraud. NIST drafted specifications for biometric ID cards in April 2011 to include a clause that would require the use of iris scanning if fingerprinting was problematic.

NIST has come under fire for taking too long to create a standard for the use of iris images in federal identity cards. During a June 19 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on government operations, Charles Romine, director of NIST's Information Technology Lab, was questioned by subcommittee chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) about the absence of technical guidance for federal agencies. Mica cited testimony from Romine’s predecessor, Cita Furlani, who promised in 2011 that the standard would be ready within months. She retired shortly after without delivering on the promise.

In a related effort, NIST and the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate are working on a publication that will define both optical imaging specifications and test methods for iris cameras.

"The iris standard can support PIV authentication and other uses, such as e-passports," NIST's biometric testing project leader Patrick Grother said in a written statement. "More importantly, the iris standard ensures that the iris data is interoperable, that is, it can be exchanged easily between cameras and readers from different makers and across the world."

In May, the DHS issued a request for proposals in an effort to upgrade to a new smart-card system that incorporates advanced technology. The 10-year, $99.5 million plan seeks to replace 61,924 PIV cards in 2013 and 116,172 cards in 2014. The winning contractor will be responsible for issuing and managing approximately 300,000 cards. The DHS included iris recognition as one of the implementation requirements, particularly iris capture, storage and matching.

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