Princeton Identity CEO: Iris recognition technology is winning biometric battle

By Tom Bergeron
Hamilton Township | Feb 13, 2018 at 4:49 pm
From our print edition

Samsung will launch its latest phone, the Galaxy S9, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona later this month.

The phone, which is meant to compare and compete with Apple’s iPhone X, will feature all of the latest upgrades. It also will include a feature from a New Jersey-based company that continues to make the Galaxy line unique: the ability to unlock your phone simply by using your eyes.

How will Mark Clifton, founder and CEO of Princeton Identity, celebrate another launch of his technology that will bring millions in revenue?

By working in a small office and creative studio in a commercial office strip mall in Hamilton Township, a few miles away from the state capital.

Iris recognition authentication in a phone? That’s old news for Clifton and Princeton Identity.

Its technology was in the previous two versions of the phone. And, as Clifton will tell you, there have not been many updates in the technology since it appeared in 2016.

Don’t be confused: Clifton is thrilled by the use of the feature in the phone. He said the ever-growing use of biometric recognition is good for the growth of the company and the industry.

In fact, he credits Apple’s introduction of fingerprint technology in 2013 as a milestone moment for biometrics, even while saying it has proven to be inferior to iris recognition authentication.

“It’s been a long time for biometrics to get to where it is today,” he said. “It’s taken something like Apple adding the fingerprint on the phone to actually get the breakthrough to happen.

“That was kind of the seminal moment for biometrics. When Apple added that, people said, ‘Fingerprints aren’t just for the FBI anymore. I can use biometrics for other things because it actually is pretty convenient.’”

Convenience is just one half of the benefit, Clifton said.

“We are the convergence of convenience and security,” he said.

Because of that, Clifton feels the use of biometrics — particularly the use of iris recognition authentication — is on the verge of an explosion of use in all aspects of business and society around the globe.

Iris recognition authentication can be used (and often already is being used) to gain access to an office building or job site (or even punch in on a modern-day time clock), go through customs at a border crossing (especially in airports), start a car, access medical records or financial data, or purchase just about anything at any time without having to reach for your wallet.

For all its potential improvements, iris recognition authentication also is pushing the world to more of a Big Brother society. In India, that’s a good thing, as it has proven to be an effective means of identification of its more than 1 billion population. In China, may be less so, as some fear it is being used to track the movement of its citizens.

But all of these uses are why Clifton is excited about the future of his industry.

And they are why he won’t be in Barcelona on Feb. 25 for the latest Galaxy launch.

Clifton will be Jersey, working on what he feels is the next big thing: even more uses for iris recognition authentication.

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Iris recognition authentication is far superior to any other type of biometric recognition.

At least, that’s been Clifton’s feeling since he started at SRI International in 2008 (it spun off Princeton Identity in 2016). Clifton feels high rates of false readings for both the fingerprint technology and facial recognition have proven the superiority of iris recognition beyond a doubt.

Iris recognition authentication, he said, is superior because it’s far more precise.

“I could enroll you at age 3 and I could recognize you at age 50, no problem,” he said. “Your iris doesn’t change. Your fingerprints change, your face changes, your weight changes, everything else changes, your iris doesn’t. It’s stable.”

The reason? Your iris is far more intricate and complex (in other words, unique) than you realize.

Eighty percent of the world has brown eyes, but they are all different, Clifton said.

“The iris has an immense amount of information,” he said. “The iris is the color of the eye; it’s a muscle, formed very early. It has 250 points per eye of identification.

“Statistically, we talk about false accepts and false rejects. That’s the measure people use in biometrics. So, on a false accept basis, if I was just recognizing one eye, the chance of getting a false accept is about 1 in 1.4 million. And if I do both eyes, it’s 1 in 1.4 trillion. It’s like DNA.

“Identical twins? No problem, I can tell them apart even though their DNA is identical. Each eye is unique, and each person is unique.”

Clifton said it can’t be copied, too.

A scenario where a villain puts in a false eye to gain access to your identity? Clifton said that can only take place in the movies.

And it’s not because the iris is so complicated that it can’t be copied. But, rather, unlike your fingerprint or your face, your iris has a life of its own.

“It’s a muscle,” he said. “As soon as there is no blood flow, it changes and it’s not going to be the same.

“If you expire, your iris is no good just a few hours after that. No one can steal your iris.”

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While its use in phones brought notoriety and acceptance, Clifton said the next big area of use for iris recognition authentication is in access control.

And it’s not just logging into your computer at work (though it can be done — and without the constant annoyance of changing a password that can be hacked or stolen).

It’s getting into your building or workplace — and moving around in that workspace, Clifton said.

“Our first market is access control,” he said. “And, basically, we got into that market because that was the market that was rapidly adopting biometrics.

“Fingerprints and facial recognition systems weren’t really working well, and people were realizing that cards were not very secure.”

Iris authentication recognition is proving to be better, Clifton said.

“We have systems down in South American oilfields, where they were trying to use facial recognition for access,” he said. “But the guys get dirty on the platforms; it didn’t work. So, they used our stuff and it worked. They’re pretty happy.”

And, at big sites like these, controlling access helps control payroll, Clifton said.

“We have an installation at a Middle East construction company,” he said. “They have 50,000 employees at 35 different sites. Employees were punching in and they knew they were getting ripped off in payroll. A friend would punch them in or somebody’s cousin would show up for him and he’s not qualified.

“They installed our system for clocking in and clocking out. It’s just time and attendance. It’s been going for more than three years. It’s getting heavily used at 35 different sites. They have hard hats, they get dirty, but it works. And they know they don’t get paid unless they register, so they do it.

“Once they get it — and it takes less than five minutes to train — it becomes very efficient. In the first year, they reduced their payroll 10 percent. All payroll fraud was immediately eliminated.”

Ease of use is great. As is payroll savings. But Clifton said it wasn’t until the cost to implement an iris recognition authentication program dropped considerably that Princeton Identity could build a successful business plan.

Clifton said the cost to install and use iris technology is comparable to that of the more common pass card entry systems.

A system that reads the iris goes for about $2,000 a unit, while the PC server that records and stores the information may be double that.

As with any business-to-business product, there are volume discounts, but, as a starting point, Clifton said a facility that requires eight readers (think of both external and internal doors) plus the server technology could be outfitted for approximately $20,000.

More savings, Clifton said, come over time because companies are no longer required to buy replacement pass cards — something that could cost anywhere from $5 to $50 per card, depending on what is stored on them.

Clifton said Princeton Identity worked with a global client that was replacing up to 100,000 access cards a year.

“Cards are not very secure,” he said. “You can give it to someone else, you can lose it, so someone else can use it. And there’s a recurring cost because of loss. With biometrics, there’s no recurring cost.”

Setup, Clifton said, is easy. And can be done in a morning.

People can be registered in approximately 30 seconds, thought it depends on how much information a company wanted to capture.

Clifton said Princeton Identity can set a system to need an authentication of one eye or both. And from there, it can add facial and even fingerprinting (yes, it does all of that, too).

But even with the most complex needs — Clifton said Princeton Identity is working at a military base in Georgia that required all five points of authentication — registering individuals can be done quickly.

“We did 14 Marines in 11 minutes,” he said.

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Access control is not just about personnel and payroll.

Tracking who is coming and going also supports anti-terrorism programs — whether it be at an oilfield or in an airport, Clifton said.

That’s why border points of entry, especially airports, are another huge growth area for Princeton Identity, he said.

Princeton Identity operates in multiple airports around the world, including Dubai, where it has an office for personnel.

“You go through e-gates,” he said. “If you’re registered, you can use your passport. You put your passport in and it recognizes you. It captures your face and iris and it matches you against the database.”

Clifton understands there is a concern for identity theft at registration, but he said that concern is no greater than identity theft by obtaining a passport.

“There are people there that are going to do vetting of the person,” he said. “When you originally register, there is somebody there to vet that you are that person. It’s like a driver’s license, where you have to put in your six pieces of identification. You have to do that, but after the initial stage, you’re done.”

Clifton said airports need to move to this system to combat their biggest problem: They have too many travelers in a space that cannot be expanded.

“Airports’ biggest issue is that the number of travelers are going up,” he said. “The infrastructure is not scaling at the same rate. So, they have got to make the existing infrastructure handle more people. How do you do that? You can’t throw more people at the problem, you have to use technology to solve that problem.”

And, he said, solving the problem doesn’t mean compromising security. Clifton feels biometrics increases security. For proof, he points to his biggest airport client.

“I always tell people in Dubai, they live in a really bad neighborhood, so they want to make it simple and seamless, but they want to have really high security,” he said. “They can’t have any screwups. They are trying to be a beacon in the Middle East in regard to how it is supposed to be, and they are really sensitive in how they look.”

Airports, he said, get another benefit from the program. More revenue.

The faster travelers can get through customs or security checkpoints, the more money they can spend at duty-free shops and the increasingly growing number of food and retail options.

The reason for such growth, Clifton said, is simple.

“I’ve had airport experts tell me the biggest money maker is in shopping,” he said. “They hope to break even on everything else but make a profit on shopping. Getting people through gates faster helps them do that.

“For all these airports, it’s the only way they make a profit. The duty-free zones. Dubai made $2.5 billion last year duty free. Incheon (in South Korea) was close to $1 billion. They don’t want you standing in a security line. They want you shopping.”

If you’re thinking this can be an economic boon for Newark Liberty International Airport, think again. Or, at least, put that thought on hold.

Clifton said airports in the U.S. are way behind in the use of this technology (and he said some experiments with facial recognition have proven to be a failure).

Clifton said Princeton Identity has not talked with Newark airport officials, but he said any such talks would start with the Department of Homeland Security. Talks regarding Newark Liberty have not taken place with DHS either, he said.

“The U.S. is a third-world country when it comes to airports,” he said. “You go to Dubai, you go to Schiphol (in Amsterdam), any of these other airports, and they’re organized so much more efficiently. As a taxpayer, it makes me crazy; you’re paying for their ineptitude. You’re paying for new restaurants instead of improving the flow.

“Congress put in the requirement for the visa exit program back in the mid-90s to add biometrics. They’re just doing it now, 20 years later. That’s the progress of the U.S. government.”

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While Clifton will not make the launch of the latest Samsung phone in Barcelona, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to travel the globe to talk about iris recognition authentication and its impact on business (and society) throughout the world.

In March, he’ll be the keynote speaker at the first Global Iris Recognition Summit in Beijing. It’s one of approximately a dozen trips he’ll make outside of the United States.

For now, the adoption of iris recognition authentication is happening more quickly outside of the country.

“They’re coming to us,” Clifton said. “They’ve heard about our technology.

“Europe is looking at this. How do you move people seamlessly through gates and things like that without having all of the disruptions you typically have with biometrics?

“We’ve been contacted by the U.N., the government of Turkey. They have 2.8 million refugees from Syria. How do they keep track of all these people? These people didn’t come with papers.

“We just got contacted by a Scandinavian country which is very interested in seamless access control.

“I see the Middle East and Asia adopting quickly. They’re going to biometrics. I see Africa coming along because they want to get to a cashless society. Nigeria has a whole program.

“India wants to get there, and to do that, you need to be able to authenticate people. When you have national ID programs, like India and China, that are going to require iris, those applications are just going to explode.”

Clifton, however, said Princeton Identity is building up its national sales, too.

The company has 39 employees worldwide. That’s up nine from the year before. And Clifton said they hope to add a half-dozen more by the end of the year.

And while the development is done in New Jersey — and the manufacturing, Clifton proudly boasts, is done in New Jersey and Connecticut — the next wave of employee expansion will be throughout the U.S.

“I’ve just hired a VP of sales and marketing and his target, his mission is to reach the midsize companies from 100 to 1,000 employees,” Clifton said. “We’re setting up regional sales teams. I’ve got three regional sales managers.

“They will go out strictly on a commission basis and touch 300-400 customers and makes sales in the physical security space. We’re setting up those networks. That’s really our next initiative in the access control space.”

Princeton Identity had revenues of just under $10 million in 2017, a number Clifton hopes to double in 2018.

Clifton wouldn’t disclose his New Jersey customers, except to say Princeton Identity serves two of the Top 10 data centers in the state and some of the state’s global players.

Clifton thinks retail is the next big growth area.

“I think you could start to see it in the retail industry in the next two years,” he said. “At least in pilots. We’re talking to some really big retailers.

“Retailers hate banks because they think they are getting ripped off. That’s the most fundamental truth. If a retailer can come up with a system that’s going to reduce the fraud and force banks to reduce their rates, it’s going to continue to drive innovation.”

Banks and credit card companies are looking to move into the space, too, he said.

Clifton said they know they need to keep up with technology — especially technology that helps reduce fraud and increases convenience.

Clifton laughed when he talked about the process he had to go through when Princeton Identity went for its own financing.

“As a startup, you have to set up bank accounts,” he said. “We were setting up some account and it required authentication. I was 30 minutes on the phone answering the dumbest questions, like the name of your first pet. It was just incredible. It was so arcane.

“I was in the bank getting something notarized and they just needed my driver’s license. Are you kidding me? Ask any college kid, right now, you can get an ID, a driver’s license at whatever birthday you want, online.”

Clifton thinks iris recognition authentication is the solution to some many issues.

“It used to be convenience and security were diametrically opposed,” he said. “We’ve lined them up. So, you can have security and it can be convenient. That’s the fundamental difference I think we bring to the table.”

Cool and convenient

If former Apple head Steve Jobs taught the business world one thing, it’s that products not only have to be convenient, they have to be cool.

Mark Clifton, the CEO of Princeton Identity, an iris authentication recognition company in Hamilton Township, agrees.

“Millennials want convenience,” he said. “Think of retail. What’s more convenient than just using your eyes to pay for something.

“Why don’t people use Samsung pay? It’s like three or four steps and that’s too much. I can pull out my credit card and it’s faster. Who’s going to win that battle? Whatever is easiest is what people will adopt.”

Then there’s coolness. The St. Louis Cardinals baseball team is using Princeton Identity to help players gain access to their clubhouse.

“The guys come in and they’re carrying a bunch of bags,” Clifton said. “They don’t have to put them down, that’s convenient. And they can open the door with their eyes, that’s cool. They just look over and the door opens up.”

The company

Princeton Identity, based in Hamilton Township, is a spinoff of SRI International, a nonprofit, independent research center based in Menlo Park, California, that serves government and industry.

Mark Clifton, who joined SRI in 2008, helped Princeton Identity spin off into its own for-profit company in 2016. His task throughout has been to make iris recognition authentication a profitable biometric company.

“This technology has been worked on through research funding by the federal government from the late ’90s to the 2000s,” he said. “When I got to SRI in 2008, this technology filled probably half of (an average-sized) room, required six or seven cameras and cost a quarter of a million dollars.

“I thought, there’s something here, but I have to get it down to something practical. I’ve got to get the cost down and the size down. The technology of the cameras. I’ve got to use professional video cameras, almost TV cameras. And you also have to be able to be easy to use. We’ve really tried to make it easy, fast superior accuracy and security, but also get the cost down to where it’s acceptable for the average industry.”

At the same time, SRI became the biometric company of choice for Samsung, which wanted to join forces.

“Samsung said, ‘We want to invest in you guys,’” Clifton said. “SRI is a not-for-profit. It took over a year to convince management to work a deal and basically convert the license over to Princeton Identity and then cut our deal. The venture group at Samsung funded our spinout. It was obviously pushed by the mobile group here.

“They have a percentage of stock. They are a major shareholder, but they are not in control. SRI has a piece, Samsung has a piece and the employees have a piece. We still work with Samsung, they are still promoting us.”

How it works

Princeton Identity can recognize your iris as you walk (or even run) by a scanner, according to CEO Mark Clifton.

These scanners can pick up your iris through sunglasses or even contacts. And even do it outside on a sunny day when you are squinting.

“Our patent, in really fundamental terms, is a flash photographer of the iris,” Clifton said. “We do something that we call ‘strobing’ and we synch that with the camera. On the phone, you see a little red light, that’s actually flashing, it’s just flashing fast. It’s synched in with a camera and that will do a recognition.  Fundamentally, the light blasts and the camera captures.

“Eighty percent of the world’s population has brown eyes. If you used visible photography, or cameras, on brown eyes, you don’t see enough differences to get the information out. It’s a red light, but it’s really not that visible. It’s right on the edge of visible light, so you don’t really know what’s happening. It’s not like somebody is flashing white light in your eyes, so it doesn’t cause a reaction.”

There’s only one thing that can stop recognition, Clifton said. Text neck.

If people attempt to go through a scanner while looking straight down at their phone it may not be able to pick up their eyes.

Conversation Starter

To learn more about Princeton Identity, contact Bob McKee, VP of sales and marketing at Bob.McKee@princetonidentity.com or call 609-256-6994.