Lend us an ear

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Lend us an ear

SA researchers hope to make children's ears as important as fingerprints in identifying them

Journalist

Your child’s ears may be as important as their fingerprint in the future.
Currently there’s no way to prove that an infant is the same person identified on a birth certificate, but now the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) biometric unit is looking to change that by using the ear as an identifying feature.
Dick Mathekga, senior researcher with the organisation’s Biometrics Research Group, said: “The ear, according to research, is one of those structures that does not change a lot. But no one has done a study to determine the age up to which the ear can be used to establish identity.”The unit is calling on parents to lend an ear by including their children in the study.
“The unit looks at all aspect of biometrics. The babies project came about as a result of looking at challenges faced in the country. The Department of Home Affairs has no way of identifying children,” said Mathekga.
He said the ear had desirable characteristics over fingerprints and the iris because it was easy and non-invasive to photograph.
The study is being funded by the Department of Science and Technology and, if successful, each ID number will be linked to the identifying ear in the same way fingerprints are used.
For example, the South African Social Security Agency faces a big problem with multiple birth certificates registered to one child while they are still under a month old. Each birth certificate is then used to get a child grant from Sassa.
Home Affairs has tried in the past to use fingerprints on children but the devices used to capture prints are not made for young children.
“The characteristics of skin are different. With adults it’s rough and with children it’s soft,” said Mathekga. “The minute a child places their finger on the surface, all you get is a black dot.”
But taking prints did decrease fraud by acting as a deterrent as people didn’t know that the prints were unclear.“When you apply for an ID, you have to give your fingerprints. These prints don’t go in the ID book but it’s digitalised and stored on the system. If I go to a bank to open a bank account, they take a thumb print and ask Home Affairs: ‘Does this print belong to the following ID number?’”
A similar verification algorithm is being developed by the CSIR for ears.
The CSIR unit has been working on improved technologies to capture prints and has so far been successful with children as young as six weeks old. It has also looked at the iris of the eye, which, from existing literature, they know stabilises from the age of two.
“We don't know exactly what happens between zero and two. The thinking is its still being formed.”
However, when it comes to the eye, there are a number of challenges.
“Young children spend lots of time asleep and you can’t instruct them to open their eyes. Some devices require you to look at it for an extended period of time. I don’t see parents allowing you to force a child’s eye open,” said Mathekga.
Additionally, babies did not want to look at a bright light which might damage their eyes.
The unit is now looking for parents to indicate their willingness to participate in the study as the researchers need a large enough sample to get approval from the CSIR ethics committee.
“If we could get 10 children in each age group up to 16 years old, then at least we could come to an initial conclusion,” he said.

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