Samsung has announced a new tablet that features iris-recognition technology, built specifically for government and enterprise bodies in India.
Priced at INR 13,499 ($200), the Android 5.0 Samsung Galaxy Tab Iris sports a 7.0” WSVGA (1024×600) display, 1.2 Ghz Quad Core processor, a 3,600mAh battery, and other average specifications. But the real kicker here is, of course, the onboard Iris camera, which allows public-facing organizations to authenticate the identity of individuals by scanning their eyes.
But why India?
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) is a government agency set up for the express purpose of collecting biometric and demographic data on the country’s residents and storing it in a central database. Each individual is then allocated a 12-digit number, known as a Aadhaar.
The program has been controversial, with some groups calling it unconstitutional because it infringes on people’s privacy. Indeed, similar schemes have been vetoed elsewhere in the world, but in March, India passed the new Aadhaar bill, which is designed to make the Aadhaar number mandatory for all government subsidies and is part of a push toward a cashless and paperless society. This is where Samsung India’s new tablet comes into play.
It’s “ready for Aadhar authentication through an integrated and highly secure biometric device,” according to a press release issued today. “The Galaxy Tab Iris will provide cashless and paperless services in various applications such as banking, eGovernance services such as passport, taxation, healthcare and education.”
So Samsung hopes the Galaxy Tab Iris will be used for services such as E-PDS (Electronic Public Distribution system), MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural employment Guarantee Act) payments, pension schemes, tax filings, passport renewals, car registrations, and even passenger verification at airports or railway stations.
Samsung’s move into biometric tablets isn’t entirely surprising — in March 2015, SRI International, the original creators of Apple’s famous SIRI virtual assistant, announced an exclusive license of its Iris on the Move (IOM) technologies to Samsung. The first fruits of this deal were supposed to lead to a special customized version of the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 tablet with a built-in iris-scanner, though it’s not entirely clear whether that device ever made it into the B2B marketplace.
Though the Samsung Galaxy Tab Iris will undoubtedly lead to continued controversy, India hopes it will help banks and government agencies streamline the authentication process, as it negates the need for paperwork, signatures, and other time-consuming procedures. But perhaps more than that, it also helps circumvent literacy and language barriers — India is home to many languages and dialects, which can cause problems, particularly for those traveling to other regions.
“We’re excited to offer biometric-based services to the billion plus people enrolled in Aadhar,” said Dr. Aloknath De, corporate vice president and chief technology officer of Samsung India’s research and development team. “Our India R&D team has made significant investments in biometric technology research, and we built this product leveraging our knowledge in hardware design, biometrics and security for a high-speed scan, greater accuracy and high reliability.”
Dr. Aloknath De added that Samsung is also offering an identity software development kit (SDK) to allow developers to build digital services that work with the technology. “This will encourage our startup ecosystem to rapidly build relevant apps and services,” he said. “We strongly believe this overall offering will in turn strengthen government programs.”
The case for iris-recognition technology
While fingerprint scanners are becoming the norm on mobile devices, as a mechanism for letting users unlock their device and login to apps, iris-recognition technology has hitherto been absent from phones and tablets. While it no doubt comes with its own unique and beneficial security credentials, the practicalities of holding a device up to your face to unlock it perhaps precludes the technology from becoming standard on consumer phones and tablets.
This is why the technology lends itself better to a B2C scenario, where a tablet can be mounted roughly at head-level to allow a person to identify themselves speedily. Whether iris-scanners take off in India, let along globally, remains to be seen, but it seems the uptake will very much hinge on legislation, which will vary widely on a country-by-country basis. There is still a great deal of mistrust among the citizens of the world that their governments can’t be trusted with sensitive biometric data, so it’s probably safe to assume that this kind of technology won’t be implemented at scale any time soon.
There could be other use-cases though. If a phone or tablet has an iris-scanner built-in, it could be used as an additional, opt-in form of security for the super security conscious to unlock their devices. Or banks could perhaps offer it as an addled protection layer to access online accounts.
Whatever happens, Samsung clearly wants to be at the forefront of the eye-based security push. The company filed for a couple of patents in Europe last week, one for the “Samsung Iris” and the other for the “Samsung Eyeprint” trademarks. With its new Samsung Note 6 expected to launch later this year, the Korean tech titan could have a few innovative tricks up its sleeve come launch.