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UK security startup may help Brexit's Irish border problem

[LONDON] A London-based facial recognition startup has talked to the UK government over how it can help manage border crossings between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland following the UK's departure from the European Union.

Iproov, a six-year year company, has received interest from the UK government about working on border crossings and other possible use cases, Andrew Bud, Iproov's founder and chief executive officer, said in an interview. "We had a great deal of focused and high-level interest in our technology," he said.

The company has also won a contract from US Department of Homeland Security to build a system using its facial recognition technology to bolster security and reduce waiting times at border crossings.

The company's technology, which is already used by banks, including DNB in Norway and Rabobank in the Netherlands, as well as the UK's tax agency, can be used with a mobile phone and with pre-existing photographic records, such as passport or driving licence photographs. It works by using the phone or other device to take a short video of someone's face while shining a pattern of coloured light at it. It then analyses reflection, comparing it to what its own system expects, to verify the person's identity.

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The problem of how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland when it becomes home to the UK's border with the EU is far from being solved. Finding a way to avoid border infrastructure at the Irish border is one of the biggest issues the UK and European Union disagree over and threatens to derail talks.

The UK government has said technology could be part of the solution. On Monday Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said there needs be "measurable and significant progress" by June on the Irish border issue in the Brexit negotiations.

Unlike other facial recognition systems, Iproov's system cannot be fooled by someone holding a digital image up to the device camera, Mr Bud said. This is becoming a major concern as machine learning networks become ever-better at generating fake images.

It is also unique in being able to use photographic images from an existing database with the video images taken by the mobile device, without requiring a user to enroll their face using that device, he said.

Iproov's pilot with the US border agency is part of a four-phase contract worth up to US$800,000. The first phase is worth about US$190,000, Mr Bud said. The contract is specifically targeted at the 300 US land border crossing points that are not currently staffed by DHS agents.

The idea would be that travellers could use Iproov's technology to "self-serve" the document check that normally happens at the border itself, authenticating themselves against a pre-registered photograph.

Mr Bud said in an interview that Iproov's system had been shown in benchmark testing to be 100 times more accurate in checking someone's identity against a passport photograph than a trained human passport officer.

Iproov has been funded largely through angel investors and a series of grants from the UK government's Innovate UK agency, Bud said.