Where Minority Report Went Wrong


Deep in an underground complex, a military leader salutes the guards standing before a thick metal door. He steps up to the door eye level. “Iris scan commencing,” reads a screen at eye level. “Identity validated. Welcome, commander.”  The door opens with a whoosh.

If you go to the movies, you probably recognize scenes like these from countless thrillers and sci-fi blockbusters. Trekkies fondly remember the scene in 1982’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, where Captain Kirk submits to a retinal scan to access the highly classified “Genesis Project.”

And that’s just the beginning. Hollywood has always been fascinated with biometrics—technology that uses bodily features to identify people with near-perfect accuracy. For filmmakers, they’re a convenient way to add visual pizzazz and a futuristic gloss.

But biometrics will be part of daily life sooner than you might think. JetBlue and Delta just announced they’re testing facial recognition and fingerprint scans as potential replacements for the traditional boarding pass. Singapore and Australia are also using biometrics to speed travelers onto airplanes and through passport control. Dubai International Airport and Gatwick Airport in London already have biometric systems in place.

Ironically, Hollywood’s version of biometrics is much less capable than the real thing. The biometric systems in movies can be easily duped by fake irises, special glasses, even eyeballs from dead people.

While those tricks might make good entertainment, they wouldn’t fool today’s technology for a second, much less tomorrow’s. Here’s a short tour of some of the more common Hollywood myths.

Minority Report meets Face-Off


In the 2002 Minority Report, Tom Cruise plays a disgraced policeman who undergoes an eye transplant to conceal his identity. This would seem to pose a dilemma when he needs to break into his former employer’s network, which uses iris scanning to verify identity. No worries though. He circumvents security by bringing his old eyes along.  

Clever, except most biometric systems combine iris scanning with other kinds of analysis, like face detection. An eye without a face attached wouldn’t do much good.

Dead eyes don’t do it


Another example of Hollywood missing the mark is 1993’s action film Demolition Man. In one especially gruesome scene, Wesley Snipes’ character Simon Phoenix removes a prison guard’s eyeball to fool a retinal scanner and break out of jail. In the real world, this strategy would certainly fail. First of all, today’s scanners use iris recognition, not retinal scanning. And they are equipped with liveness detection which considers multiple factors to determine a live eye is being scanned. For example, a living eye’s pupils dilate and respond to light. A dead one would be unresponsive and easily detected.

Even twins can’t win


In the 2005 film The Island, a clone played by Ewan McGregor uses his eye to gain access to a door in the home of his DNA donor, protected by an iris scanner. What the screenwriter might not have realized, having identical DNA would not guarantee access. Even identical twins, bearing the same DNA, have completely different iris patterns, which biometric systems would detect. A DNA test might get fooled; an iris scanner wouldn’t.

Contact lenses fall flat

sonypicturesmuseum.com / biometrics.mainguet.org

In the 2000 film remake of Charlie’s Angels, Cameron Diaz’s character, Natalie, fools an iris scanner with a contact lens to get into a safe. Sadly for the Angels, this is one of the easiest stratagems to foil. Unlike fingerprints, the pattern in a living iris cannot be replicated. Many advanced iris recognition systems can detect contact lenses by looking at a range of synthetic traits. For example, the irises look different in different wavelengths and don’t have the  repeated patterns which are characteristic of colored lenses. On top of this, contact lenses don’t change shape like a natural eye – another clear giveaway.  Sorry Charlie.

The hacking hold-up


Biometrics show up in TV as well. In an episode of the TV crime series Numb3rs, a burglar gains access to the secure CalSci facility by hacking into the server and swapping out approved iris signatures for his own. While this tactic neatly circumvents the problem of simulating a living eye, it runs into other serious problems. Any biometric system worth its salt stores its scans in a heavily encrypted format. Not only would hackers have to penetrate the whole system, but they would also have to break the encryption. Impossible? OK, not impossible. But monumentally difficult without an inside source.

The lesson? Hollywood tales are good fun, but reality is even more remarkable. Whether ensuring liveness, using multiple biometrics, or leveraging advanced encryption and other security technology, today’s biometric systems literally surpass imagination.

Tascent, Inc.

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