Purdue News

June 19, 2006

Purdue developing biometric technology to counter hurricane relief fraud

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue University is developing the use of handheld iris scanners that could be used to identify disaster victims and help prevent "double dipping" and other fraud that can occur during aid distribution.

The Government Accountability Office recently reported that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may have improperly disbursed more than $1 billion by not validating the identity of aid registrants in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The GAO cited the example of one person receiving $139,000 in aid by registering 13 times using different Social Security numbers. Other recipients altered their own names or addresses or borrowed names from children or prisoners to obtain extra aid.

A possible solution from Purdue's Biometric Standards, Performance & Assurance Laboratory would allow aid workers to capture a digital image of the recipient's iris when he or she registers for aid. The iris-scanning camera is attached to a personal digital assistant (PDA) that sends the image wirelessly to a central repository hosting a database of all users who have previously been issued aid. If a new image matches an existing image, aid would be denied.

"The human iris is the most unique biometric characteristic of an individual person to date," said lead researcher Mamadou Niang. "Iris scanning could serve very well as a tool for accountability and deterrent to fraud."

Purdue biometrics researcher Matthew Young, Erik Kukula and Shimon Modi were in Washington, D.C., last week with their laboratory director Stephen Elliott, an assistant professor of industrial technology and faculty member at Purdue's Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security. They were meeting with fellow members of the International Committee for Information Technology Standards' M1 Technical Committee to create and modify national biometric standards. Such standards help ensure the interoperability of biometric technologies, such as iris scanning, in government applications.

"Unlike other identification systems, Purdue's concept does not require any paper documents or for users to be registered in the system before the disaster," Young said. "The system is portable, quick, accurate and self-sustaining — all key factors in a time of chaos and destruction."

Elliot said iris scanning is likely to be accepted more readily by members of the public who might be resistant to having their fingerprints taken. Elliott also said iris scanning could possibly be used to identify emergency and medical personnel trying to enter a disaster area, a need made evident last year when volunteers rushing to help were denied access for security reasons. The concept would require creating a national database filled with iris images from workers who are prepared to mobilize in time of emergency. Their identities then could easily be verified by iris scanning when they arrive at a disaster.

Niang said iris scanning is already being used by the United Nations to monitor aid distribution to refugees in Afghanistan, but the scanners there are in fixed, sometimes inconvenient, locations. Niang expects mobile credentialing with iris-scanning technology will be useful to the U.N.'s High Commission for Refugees, the International and American Red Cross, and the Department of Homeland Security, including FEMA.

Writer: Jim Schenke, (765 494-6262, jschenke@purdue.edu

Sources: Mamadou Niang, (765) 409-3965, niangm@purdue.edu

Matthew Young, (765) 532-6549, mryoung@purdue.edu

Stephen Elliott, elliott@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu

Note to Journalists: A graphic presentation of Purdue's concept for using iris scanning to prevent disaster aid fraud can be downloaded from online.


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