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Can Design Put A Friendly Face On Iris-Scanning Tech?

Whipsaw designs a user-friendly iris-scanning device that could streamline the airport security process. But at what cost?

In 2012, technology advocates hailed iris scanners as a key way to improve security and cut lines at airports–but in the U.K., the technology took even longer than a human immigration officer to process a single person.

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Now, the biometrics startup Tascent is betting that its new facial recognition and iris scanner InSight One will become a consistent feature of immigration desks, security counters, and border control checks around the world because of its speed, accuracy, and ease-of-use. But it also raises troubling questions around privacy.

The Promise (And Problems) With Iris Recognition
Biometric devices–which recognize a person through biological markers–are used at about a quarter of all airports, according to a 2015 report. That includes some iris-scanning technology. But concerns over speed and accuracy have prevented the technology from being widely adopted. The iris scanning tech rolled out in the U.K. in 2012 was supposed to work in about 12 seconds, but the machines often took longer and wrongly rejected one in 10 passengers.

Tascent’s InSight One is designed to work in two seconds. The company claims that the system rarely fails to read someone’s iris, and false negatives are at less than 1%. The device is small enough to fit on a desk. And the company believes that the system’s ease of use is a major reason why iris scanners will become ubiquitous in airports. All you do is walk up and look at it, no boarding pass or passport needed.

How It Works
The InSight One scanner is equipped with a proximity sensor that detects when someone has walked into its orbit. A ring of white light around the edges of the round device–almost like a vanity mirror–lights up in order to prevent shadows on your face, and also serves to indicate that your picture is being taken. It reads your face and iris from up to three feet away, then checks your identity against known criminal and terrorist databases in about two seconds. If you’re all set, the device’s ring of light turns green and its interface shows you a green check mark. If there’s a problem, the light turns red, the interface shows a red cross, and security is alerted. “We’ve been able to make the machine work without [making it look] as technical as it actually is,” says Dan Harden, CEO and principal at Whipsaw, the firm that designed the InSight One.

Harden believes that the simple user interface could help make people feel more comfortable during the often stressful experience of travel.”We could have made that thing very intimidating so as to make terrorists think twice about going through that line. It could have been this all black, sharp, edgy thing that looked angry,” he says. “But by far the majority of people passing through security in an airport mean no harm. They just want to get through their day, for it to be as easy and fast as possible but also to feel safe at the same time.”

Potential Applications
Tascent’s InSight Duo, a previous version of the scanner with similar technology, has been used to monitor crowds at London’s Gatwick Airport and at the Dubai International Airport for years because it can capture people’s faces from farther away than the InSight One (the company says that its scanners process tens of millions of people per year). But while the Duo sits 7 feet tall, weighs 100 pounds, and takes four to five seconds to scan irises and faces, the InSight One is only about 14 inches tall and 8 inches wide, weighs 7.5 pounds, and takes half that time to scan.

Ultimately, Harden believes that better security on our borders is a design problem–not something you solve with a blanket travel ban. “It’s so frustrating to me as a creative person to see that they’re using a giant hammer to solve the tiniest of problems. You don’t need extreme vetting, you need tiny vetting,” he says. “It can be subtle, it can be friendly. This can be dealt with design and tech, not widespread bans.”

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And though InSight One is meant mostly for airports and border control (including passport enrollment), it could have applications beyond airport security. It can be mounted on a desk or wall, so the device could also be used in financial services for things like cardless payments or ATM access.

The End Of Privacy?
Tascent declined to share how exactly its clients plan to use the scanner–and privacy is a big concern, especially since iris-scanning technology could be used to track individuals on a mass scale. Tascent itself is a spin-off of another biometrics company called AOptix, which in 2013 released an iris-scanner that looks like a bulky iPhone case and is meant to help police officers identify suspects. It’s not hard to imagine a future where biometric iris scans replace drivers’ licenses or other forms of national ID as a means of identification, and not only as security at the airport: iris scanners could enable a future of targeted ads in public places or even ID verification on voting machines. Because it’s the most accurate form of biometric identification out there, it could give the government and private companies the chance to track your every move–something they likely already do digitally–in the real world.

That’s the potential trade-off for getting through the line at the airport quicker and making borders more secure using technology–which Whipsaw’s simple UI and non-threatening design obfuscates with a friendly face.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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