Biometrics: Identifying Friend or Foe

photo of face recognition system
Identification systems that combine two or more types of biometric data such as fingerprint, facial, and iris scans promise to bring significant improvements in border security. ©Robert Rathe To obtain a high resolution copy of this image contact


Hundreds of millions of people enter the United States every year at the nation's borders and other points of entry. To protect the country against terrorists and other threats, it is vital that known or suspected terrorists and people with terrorist ties be intercepted before they enter the country. It also is important that these security efforts ensure a speedy and smooth flow of international visitors at entry checkpoints. Accurate, reliable biometric technologies—automated tools that identify people based on physical or behavioral characteristics—are crucial to achieving both of these objectives.

NIST has decades of experience improving human identification systems and currently is working with other federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the U.S. Department of State, to evaluate and improve the ability of biometrics to enhance border security. The USA Patriot Act and the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act call for NIST to develop and certify a technology standard for verifying the identity of individuals and to determine the accuracy of biometric technologies, including fingerprint, facial, and iris recognition.

Biometrics technologies, primarily fingerprints, are being used broadly in the United States for border security. New technologies under development, in particular, "multimodal" systems that combine two or more biometric technologies, such as fingerprint, facial, and iris, promise to bring significant improvements. But NIST studies have shown that the accuracy of today's facial recognition systems is relatively poor compared to fingerprints, and iris recognition needs more study and testing to determine its accuracy in operational environments.

In conjunction with several other federal agencies, including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, private industry and universities, NIST is managing the Multiple Biometric Grand Challenge, which aims to reduce errors in both face and iris recognition systems. Also, NIST is performing large-scale evaluations of iris recognition to promote its standardization.

NIST is also supporting the development of standards for interoperability between different fingerprint systems through large-scale testing.

Proposed NIST Program

With additional funding, NIST will:

  • enable facial recognition technologies to be used for border security;
  • build on its testing program to determine the accuracy of multimodal systems;
  • develop tests and guidelines to assure that future biometric systems are interoperable, and work efficiently in real-time applications by:
    • improving the use of fingerprints with real-time fingerprint readers;
    • improve the interoperability, robustness, and usability of fingerprint systems and facial recognition systems;
  • improve biometric systems by enabling simultaneous use of facial recognition, fingerprint, and iris-scan technologies

NIST will coordinate this work with other government agencies and the private sector while taking international standards developments into account.

Expected Impacts

This effort will smooth the flow of international travelers at border checkpoints by increasing the accuracy as well as the efficiency, speed, and usability of biometrics for border security.

Created August 24, 2009, Updated October 05, 2010