Your Eyes Can Tell No Lies

  • At a time when everyone is worried about airline safety, the work of a little-known Cambridge University scientist could ease the public's fear. John Daugman's mathematical algorithms turn the human eye into a fingerprint. His process uses a camera to photograph the iris--the colored part of the eye--and creates a digital code based on its unique pattern. Daugman's system is extremely accurate; using 255 data points--vs. 70 for a fingerprint--it hasn't made a false match in six years of use. Indeed, iris scanners today are enhancing security at airports from Frankfurt, Germany, to Charlotte, N.C. And the British Home Office has announced that starting in December, airline passengers from North America who enroll in an iris database won't have to show their passports when arriving at London's Heathrow Airport.

    The idea of iris recognition was first proposed by an American ophthalmologist in 1936; by the late 1980s, two Boston eye doctors gave it a shot, enlisting the help of Daugman, then a newly minted Harvard Ph.D. "At first I told them I wasn't interested," he recalls. "I told them to go and get one of those clever kids from M.I.T." But as Daugman thought about the task, he became intrigued.

    Born in the U.S. to an immigrant family--his father is Latvian, his mother Swedish--Daugman, 47, credits his upbringing with opening his mind to off-beat ideas. "I liked, for example, the irregularity of the iris," he says. Irreverence, he thinks, might have helped his work. Daugman finally cracked the iris code by embracing randomness. "My system finds what it is looking for by failing to match a pattern," explains Daugman, who rarely mentions that the Queen made him a knight in 2000 for his work. If his iris system makes airports safer, he will have the thanks not only of the British monarchy, but of the world as well.