Nose Biometrics

Nose Biometrics Photo Credit: Clipart.com

Your nose may be an efficient and useful form of ID.


Sniffing out criminal noses. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Scientists are developing ways to identify people by physical features, like intricate patterns in the eyes. But some of these techniques require the person to step close and stand still—which criminals may not do willingly. That's one reason why engineer Adrian Evans, of the
University of Bath in England, turned to the nose.

Noses are very hard to cover up without drawing suspicion to yourself. So they're actually quite easy to capture with non-cooperative subjects.
He and his colleague Adrian Moorhouse analyzed 3-D images of 40 people. By measuring just three specific aspects of a nose, they were able to narrow down the possible matches much faster than a full face-recognition scan. The trade-off is that it's harder to make a one-to-one match. So the system may be best used to quickly flag suspects for further scrutiny. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

There are many kinds of biometric identification technologies: methods to identify people by physical features. Of course, the oldest is the fingerprint. However, as digital technology advances and the need for security increases, engineers have begun developing other biometric identification systems. Examples include retinal and iris scans, which use different features of the eye to identify people, and face recognition software, which analyzes an entire face.

These two technologies have the potential to be extremely accurate. However, they require a lot of computing time and power, and generally require somebody to stand still for the scan—which works fine, if you're using it to admit CIA agents into a high-security building, but isn't so great for spotting a suspected terrorist in a crowded airport.

The advantages of the nose biometric system are that it's a fast, relatively simple computation, and it can be used on non-cooperative subjects: for example, by taking pictures from a hidden camera. Noses literally stick out from your face, don't change much with facial expression, and are hard to conceal or disguise without looking suspicious. The researchers' system was effective at narrowing down choices: given a face to match to 40 possible choices, it could usually whittle the list down to 10 without accidentally eliminating the correct match. 

However, the system is too crude right now to identify a person outright. Although further refinements could improve the accuracy, it won't ever be as precise as something like a retinal scan. However, it could be used in combination with other techniques to flag possible suspects for further inspection.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What are "biometric" identification technologies?
  2. What are the advantages of the nose recognition system? What are the disadvantages?
  3. What are the advantages of biometric systems in general, compared with other forms of identification (like passports)? What are the disadvantages?

You may want to check out the April 2, 2010, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: contact lenses that could treat glaucoma, and could you get more out of a 20-minute workout than a 4-hour one? Also, a nose for identification, and why we can't smell deadly carbon monoxide gas.

Going Further

For Educators

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