11 Body Parts Defense Researchers Will Use to Track You

Cell phones that can identify you by how you walk. Fingerprint scanners that work from 25 feet away. Radars that pick up your heartbeat from behind concrete walls. Algorithms that can tell identical twins apart. Eyebrows and earlobes that give you away. A new generation of technologies is emerging that can identify you by your physiology. And unlike the old crop of biometric systems, you don't need to be right up close to the scanner in order to be identified. If they work as advertised, they may be able to identify you without you ever knowing you've been spotted.

Biometrics had a boom after 9/11. Gobs of government money poured into face and iris recognition systems; the Pentagon alone spent nearly $3 billion in five years, and the Defense Department was only one of many federal agencies funneling cash in the technologies. Civil libertarians feared the worst as face-spotters were turned on crowds of citizens in the hopes of catching a single crook.

But while the technologies proved helpful in verifying identities at entry points from Iraq to international airports, the hype -- or panic -- surrounding biometrics never quite panned out. Even after all that investment, scanners still aren't particularly good at finding a particular face in the crowd, for example; variable lighting conditions and angles (not to mention hats) continue to confound the systems.

Eventually, the biometrics market -- and the government enthusiasm for it -- cooled off. The technological development has not. Corporate and academic labs are continuing to find new ways to ID people with more accuracy, and from further away. Here are 11 projects.

Above:

The Ear


My, what noticeable ears you have. So noticeable in fact that researchers are exploring ways to detect the ears' features like they were fingerprints. In 2010, a group of British researchers used a process called "image ray transform" to shoot light rays at human ears, and then repeat an algorithm to draw an image of the tubular-shaped parts of the organ. The curved edges around the rim of the ear is a characteristic -- and most obvious -- example. Then, the researchers converted the images into a series of numbers marking the image as your own. Finally, it's just a matter of a machine scanning your ears again, and matching it up to what's already stored in the system, which the researchers were able to do accurately 99.6 percent of the time. In March of 2012, a pair of New Delhi scientists also tried scanning ears using Gabor filters -- a kind of digital image processor similar to human vision -- but were accurate to a mere 92 to 96.9 percent, according to a recent survey (pdf) of ear biometric research.

It may even be possible to develop ear-scanning in a way that makes it more reliable than fingerprints. The reason is because your fingerprints can callous over when doing a lot of hard work. But ears, by and large, don't change much over the course of a lifespan. There's a debate around this, however, and fingerprinting has a much longer and established history behind it. A big question is whether ear-scanning will work given different amounts of light, or when covered (even partially) by hair or jewelry. But if ear-scanners get to the point of being practical, then they could possibly work alongside fingerprinting instead of replacing them. Maybe in the future we'll see more extreme ear modification come along as a counter-measure.
 
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