A Global Biometrics Project for Our Times

by Justin Hughes and Andrew Hopkins

070110-M-8213R-024 U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. A.C. Wilson uses a retina scanner to positively identify a member of the Baghdaddi city council prior to a meeting with local tribal figureheads, sheiks, community leaders and U.S. service members deployed with Regimental Combat Team-7 in Baghdaddi, Iraq, on Jan. 10, 2007. Wilson is attached to the 4th Civil Affairs Group. DoD photo by Gunnery Sgt. Michael Q. Retana, U.S. Marine Corps. (Released)
photo: UNHCR creative commons

Preserving and protecting the identity of refugees has never been more critical. As hundreds of thousands continue to flee conflict and persecution across the world, the lack of a verifiable identity leaves many of them vulnerable to exploitation and limits their chances to get assistance and build a new life. Fears that this system will be exploited by criminals have contributed to the need for certainty of identity.

The UNHCR Biometrics Program

With an estimated 14.4 million refugees under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) worldwide, and thousands more fleeing every week, the need for accurate identity management and verification has never been more urgent. The UNHCR global biometrics project is a response to this rapidly growing need.

This project is a first for several reasons. It deploys a global biometrics technology solution based on a network not of airports or embassies, but of camps and country offices in some of the most challenging locations in the world. Secondly, it uses state of the art technology to enroll some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Finally, the project focuses on refugee protection, fraud prevention, and value for money. The need to avoid interfering with existing operations is also of primary concern.

Since the launch of the technology selection process in late 2012, the project has continually tested the boundaries of what is possible in all areas of biometrics innovation and technology – from data capture all the way through to data transmission and IT infrastructure. Moreover, it has tested the abilities of the project team, the larger organization, and the partners and staff involved.

Through the considerable efforts of core team members and the unyielding support of senior management, the tool has now registered over 330,000 refugees, and numbers are increasing every week.

Some Lessons Learned

What can this project teach us about the opportunities and limitations of major international identity management programs? Experience has shown that several key items will dictate the success or failure of these innovation projects.

The right design principles. The core feature of the biometrics program is that it is based on the twin principles of protection and prevention. At its heart this is a protection tool that prioritizes ease of use, security, and speed. However, such tools must also feature rigor of design, with safeguards to ensure they cannot be exploited by those with an ulterior motive. Particularly in a consensus-led organization such as UNHCR, gaining agreement on these fundamental principles was essential to laying the groundwork for what followed.

The right leadership. Recent research has identified lack of budget, people, or skills as the biggest preventable reasons why innovation projects fail. This program was based on a solid foundation comprising an experienced and tightly-knit core team supported by a dedicated steering committee and an enthusiastic sponsor. A clear program structure with continued oversight and clear checks and balances fostered confidence in the program’s potential for success. Strong, focused executive leadership ensured that the program remained on track and was delivered on time and on budget.

The right procurement process. Often, organizations accept product trials that turn into over-specified, expensive solutions that can only be delivered by one possible vendor. This is a trap that many organizations fall into: selecting the technology first and subsequently trying to fit the reality to the technology. UNHCR managed to avoid this predicament.

By first understanding the market place and the solution required and then engaging in a thorough selection and evaluation process, UNHCR was able to select the right tools for their particular needs. Furthermore, by selecting a modular solution, UNHCR will be able to ensure value for money throughout the lifetime of the system, instead of being tied to one supplier regardless of cost increases or despite the emergence of better alternative technologies.

The right testing. The continual mantra of Senior Registration Officer Andrew Hopkins was “test early and test in the field.” Decades of experience working for UNHCR across the world have given Andrew valuable insight into the best way to deploy new projects. His continual insistence on getting the technology into the field to help reveal hidden gaps was crucial.

The 2014 pilot deployment, delivered in Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi, enrolled over 17,000 refugees. It was utterly indispensable for showing what worked, what didn’t, and how to adapt to challenges in the field. Some of the most valuable insights concerned often overlooked requirements – power sockets, the right operator work-station layout, and the technical differences that arise when using natural versus artificial lighting. This approach has imbued the team with the mantra of continuous improvement – in their minds, testing never stops.

The future of biometrics. The right program structure, the right team, and the right technology are all vital. But continued monitoring of fast-changing aspects, such as information security and data privacy, is even more critical. The impact of a data breach on the people the system supports would be catastrophic, as would the impact on UNHCR. Such a breach would affect operations certainly, but would also damage the reputation of the organization as a whole and the ability of similar organizations to roll out major technology platforms.

Identification through biometrics, both within UNHCR and in wider society, is here to stay. As technology costs come down, user acceptance grows and different uses for the technologies continue to be found. Biometrics is becoming a feature of daily life. However, the key to the success of biometrics is its versatility – from helping identify refugees through to unlocking a phone or avoiding mixups with patient records, the applications are enormous and the benefits real and achievable.

Justin Hughes is a biometrics and major programs expert at PA Consulting Group, based in New York.
Andrew Hopkins is a senior registration officer with UNHCR, based in Geneva.

This blog is part of a series we will be publishing in the lead up to an international conference on November 19-21. The conference is free and open to the public. For details visit the conference website.