One of the biggest barriers to the adoption of biometric solutions around the world is misinformation. We are fighting a constant battle to ensure people understand the full capabilities and more importantly, the security features of biometric technology.
One of the most common myths about fingerprinting is that our fingerprints go ‘into the system’ from birth. While there are tangible benefits of having such secure identification available from birth, one of the biggest challenges faced by many governments has actually been the difficulty in fingerprinting newborn babies, especially in developing countries.
It is a sad fact that each year approximately 5.6 million children’s lives end before their fifth birthday. Without proper methods of accurately identifying babies, it’s very difficult to ensure that the correct vaccinations are administered, along with other social and healthcare entitlements.
Until recently, it had been very difficult to capture newborn fingerprints accurately. Thanks to NEC, this is no longer the case.
Why is fingerprint identification of newborns important?
In 2019, NEC carried out the world’s first proof of concept of fingerprint identification of newborns in the Republic of Kenya. Principal researcher, Yoshinori Koda was at the forefront of the successful proof of concept;
“I have been involved in biometric authentication technologies including fingerprint identification for more than 20 years. Among those technologies, National-ID systems featuring a biometrics identification function are a major type of system used in many countries.”
One example of this is in India where biometrics information is used, together with a unique ID number, that enables more than one billion individuals to establish and prove their identity.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted at the UN summit aims to eradicate poverty in all its forms and dimensions. The Target 16.9 of Goal 16 requires that states should, “by 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration.” Currently, the UN estimates that as many as 1 billion people struggle to prove who they are.
This means that there are still many people around the world who do not possess a legal identity. Without a legal identity that originates from birth registration, a person loses the opportunity to receive various public services such as education, medical treatment and welfare which are the fundamental rights of a citizen of all countries.
For example, if a person cannot prove that they are a citizen, they cannot acquire a passport or travel overseas. This may also lead to a situation where they cannot be granted employment opportunities, which can become a factor in preventing them from escaping poverty.
Koda believes biometric authentication technologies can contribute significantly to improving this situation, “From a systematization perspective, there are regions of the world in which the management of citizenship by governments is still lacking. Furthermore, ID cards have low credibility due to rampant forgeries in some cases. Because there are no concerns about loss, and they are highly reliable, biometric authentication technologies are extremely effective in regions that hope to solve complex issues using cutting-edge technologies.”
Why has it taken so long for fingerprint recognition of newborn children to be realised?
Fingerprints have “uniqueness” and “longevity” as their features. The fingerprints of newborn children can be imagined as the miniature version of their adult fingerprints when considered as a pattern. However, the established research on fingerprints for newborn children was limited, and the verification data did not exist. In order to implement fingerprint identification of newborn children, it was necessary to first understand what exactly are the characteristics and challenges for the capture of newborn fingerprints.
Koda and his team had a number of hurdles to overcome to collect the fingerprint data of new-born children in order to carry out the proof of concept, “I knew from my preliminary investigation that the roughly 500 ppi (pixel per inch) resolution of data collection equipment generally used for fingerprint identification of adults was unsuited to imaging the fingerprints of children. Additionally, the high-resolution imaging equipment for properly scanning the fingerprints of newborn children did not exist. Because the equipment did not exist, I would have to create it.”
In addition, the size of a baby’s fingerprint coupled with the moisture level inside their bodies also added complexity to the collection of the data, “As a result, we use a method which applies a special type of glass patented by NEC to the surface of the sensor to clearly capture the fingerprints.”
Through trial and error, Koda and his team were able to develop a prototype capable of accurately capturing a newborn baby’s fingerprint. You can read more about the process and the challenges faced on the NEC global website.
The future goals and roll-out of fingerprinting for newborns
The fingerprinting of babies is a field that has never attracted significant research. There have been several reports stating that typical fingerprint identification can be applied starting from 12 months after a child is born. However, there was little research on the scanning of fingerprints within six months from birth.
Following on from the work of Koda and his team, NEC announced a partnership with the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (hereafter “Gavi”) and Simprints in 2020.
Gavi adopted a fingerprint identification solution from the UK-based company Simprints Technology Ltd. (hereafter “Simprints”), a start-up that emerged from Cambridge University in the UK and which provides a smartphone-based fingerprint application that connects to a Bluetooth fingerprint scanner. The system can be used offline, making it suited for use in developing nations without requiring an internet presence.
The major challenge is that while this solution was able to identify adult fingerprints, the target group being children under the age of five is much more challenging, without relying on the linking of children to their parents. To solve this Gavi turned to NEC’s “Bio-IDiom” platform. Being highly rated in benchmark tests sponsored by the US government, Bio-Idiom excels in speed and accuracy, ranking Number 1 in eight consecutive NIST tests.
Koda is optimistic about the future of fingerprinting for babies, “Currently, we are only able to recognize fingerprint samples during the fragmented period of new-born children, so I would like to continue to be able to properly recognize fingerprints at the time of birth and then at age one, age five, etc. In addition, I would like to verify that the fingerprint patterns do not change from the time immediately after birth using electromagnetically recorded data. Creating such data will absolutely require continuous research, so I would like to focus on that going forward.”
“Of course, the ultimate objective is to be able to properly verify the identities of newborn children and infants in a persistent manner at the time when it is required. The current research focused on fingerprints, but I also expect to apply face recognition and other modality of biometric authentication technologies. I hope to continue working hard to apply biometric authentication to implement birth registrations so that every child will be provided with a legal personality and legal identity.”
Frequently asked questions about fingerprinting from birth
Since we initially published this post, there have been a number of questions that we have seen frequently asked when it comes to fingerprinting at birth. Here are some of the most common questions:
Do they take your fingerprints at birth?
As we have seen above, sadly for many children around the world, fingerprinting at birth has not been possible. With the UN’s goal of providing legal identification to all people around the world by 2030, however, we are likely to see fingerprinting of babies rolling out to countries around the world. The work of Gavi, Simprints and NEC will enable the accurate fingerprinting of babies under six months old. Whilst research in this area is ongoing, it is possible that other identification methods could also be introduced to provide every person with a legal personality and legal identity.
Are your fingerprints the same from birth?
The simple answer to this is yes. A person’s fingerprints usually form in the 17th week of pregnancy. These prints are set in stone before we are even born. As a person grows, the prints get bigger while retaining the same pattern. Essentially, the prints just scale up gradually. It is virtually impossible to change or erase your fingerprints, however, they can be impacted by a number of external factors such as the job you do, illness such as cancer, cuts and burns, and old age.
NEC and fingerprinting
NEC has a 40-year history of research and development in fingerprint identification, working with police and law enforcement organisations. The original aim was the analysis and identification of fingerprints left behind at crime scenes. Since then, this technology has been refined, developed, and perfected with the expertise of a large number of NEC researchers. As a result, it is the most accurate in the world.
However, we did have to overcome several obstacles when applying this technology to children. “Our fingerprint identification systems were not designed for identifying children’s fingerprints, so we needed to create a mechanism that would allow us to identify child fingerprints with the same accuracy as adult fingerprints. The development of a child fingerprint identification system ended up becoming a series of challenges as we aimed to create a new mechanism that had never been created before,” reflects Tatsuya Shimahara, Manager of NEC’s 2nd Government and Public Solutions Division.
Although fingerprints themselves do not change over our lifetimes, the size of these fingerprints does as we grow. We needed to come up with something that could respond to the change in size of these prints (see Figure 1 below).
As part of the process of creating a system capable of accurately identifying a child’s fingerprint, the team continued to develop existing technology so as to accurately identify the fingerprints of children even as they grow. “We developed a mechanism that would correct distortion and smudge while also eliminating other “noise”. Thanks to this, we were able to achieve a 99% accuracy rate when identifying the fingerprints of children, which is extremely high,” Shimahara explains.
Our work in this area has only just begun, however, we are excited about the opportunities and the applications worldwide and this aligns well with NEC’s vision of Solutions that create enduring social value.
 UNICEF, “Levels and Trends in Child Mortality Report 2017” P1, October 2017
 NIST: National Institute of Standards and Technology Result of the benchmark tests sponsored by the US government