Ted Dunstone: The past, the present and what’s next for biometrics and the Biometrics Institute – the Institute’s Chief Executive in conversation with its Founder
To celebrate the Institute’s 20-year anniversary, I caught up with Ted Dunstone, the founder of the Institute to have a chat about the early days, where we are now and what are the things we need to tackle going forward. Ted was sitting in his home office in Singapore while I was having a coffee in my office in London which in itself describes the Institute so well: a global community of people with a passion for the responsible use of biometrics.
Isabelle: Ted, tell me about how it all started back in 2001 and why you founded the Institute.
Ted: Isabelle, do you remember our first Member Meeting in Canberra in 2002? This was pre-GPS and we kept going round the roundabouts at Parliament House trying to find the exit to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We knew where we needed to be, but we had to work out how best to get there. This is similar to how the Institute started.
Early on it was apparent there was something special about what we were creating. To this day, I haven’t come across an organisation quite like the Institute, having its users at its heart, but also embracing the important contribution from suppliers and other members of the community. We found a way to nurture all of those different aspirations and requirements. That’s a difficult act to get right and it is a credit to all the people that have been involved with the Institute. In addition to yourself, I’d particularly like to call out John Peacock, an association consultant, who really helped shape the early thinking about creating a user group, and Geoff Poulton who took over from me as the Institute Chair.
The first real users of biometrics were government agencies, who were early adopters of large-scale biometrics. As I was already established in the industry, I had existing relationships to help bring together the right people early on.
Isabelle: So why did so many government departments become members? What attracted them to the Institute?
Ted: They joined because they could see the power of community of practice, where they were not only the passengers going on a journey but the actual drivers. They could use the Institute to help further their goals rather than just receive a sales pitch.
A core common goal was the mission of the Institute to promote the responsible use of biometrics. Getting the mission statement right at the start was a fundamental component of the success of the Institute. I had started the Institute as I could see how this technology could turn out to be misused, and that if you didn’t have a way to educate people about how it should be used, the whole industry would be imperilled and then the public would react badly. Most unfortunately, time has borne some of that out.
Isabelle: And here we are 20 years on still facing that very challenge of creating public trust in biometrics. So, what do you see as some of the key advancements the Institute has supported through its very existence?
Ted: I think we’ve had a lot of firsts in Australia where the Institute was founded. A lot of interesting biometric projects have gone on to deliver long lasting value within the passport system, e-gates, and government services. And most of these have been very successful projects that have not generated any negative publicity or problems.
The Institute has enabled its members to have the knowledge and the understanding and to feel comfortable and more confident about adopting biometric technology, because it comes with new risks and challenges. As a result, I believe the Institute has been a catalyst for allowing the industry to grow responsibly.
From its beginnings the Institute has pushed the privacy agenda and emphasised why that has to be considered upfront. In 2006, for example, we released the very first Biometric Privacy Code.
Another example is the vulnerability work that we’ve done. There was a recognition early on by the Institute, that this was an area that needed more development and more understanding by members. We brought together the international experts for the first time in 2010 and in the outcomes of those first meetings were the seeds of what we see today – in terms of standardisation, testing and awareness. People have asked whether these changes would have happened regardless. I think they would have eventually. But I think that the Institute – again – acted as a catalyst to make these things happen faster.
There’s another aspect. When we started with the Institute in 2001, biometrics was still very niche. It was in some passports and some people had seen it in movies, but most people had no understanding that it wasn’t science fiction. Now, 20 years later, it’s everywhere: on our phones, used in government services and it would be fair to say that a good percentage of the world’s population has encountered biometrics in one form or another. The Institute has been there for much of that journey, in all sorts of ways, working with development agencies like the UN agencies and law enforcement as well as big corporates and social media.
The work we did in 2018 with the United Nations Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate (UNCTED) and the Office of Counter Terrorism (UNOCT) in delivering the Compendium for Recommended Practices for the Responsible Use and Sharing of Biometrics in Counter-terrorism was a major milestone for the Institute. We were advised that there is no other organisation that represents such a multi-stakeholder community from around the world and that we are best placed to be the penholder for the Compendium as we deliver diverse but balanced viewpoints on biometrics. Our independence is a critical part of who we are.
The Institute has provided the one place to meet where those new to biometrics could connect with a knowledgeable community and learn from others and seek information. It is important for those seeking information on biometrics to know they are not alone. There are so many amazing and passionate people that I have worked with at the Institute – starting with the various Board Directors and Committee Members – but also the membership overall who attended so many of our events.
Isabelle: I agree, Ted, it is all about the people. I will never forget how we convinced Geoff Poulton from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia to be our first government Director and then Chairman from 2002, followed by John Secker from New Zealand Customs in 2005 who helped us take the Institute to New Zealand. In 2011 there was Paul Kirkbride from the Australian Federal Police who strongly supported the plan to set up an office in London in 2011 and now Andrew Rice, so far, our longest serving Director since 2016.
So, what do you think is next for the Institute and our community?
Ted: Our community has matured. There are such experienced people involved. New people can learn from the other members.
We have built these amazing foundations, and the Institute has accomplished so much in its 20 years. But in reality, I believe we are only just at the beginning of this journey with the significant transformations that biometrics and identity are bringing to the world.
To date, biometrics has been a largely unregulated space but that is changing as it is becoming much more mainstream. New legal frameworks are being discussed, biometric commissioners are being setup, and the EU GDPR and other legislation that addresses biometrics is being introduced. The value of a place like the Institute is to assist those who write the regulations to get them right, wherever they are in the world. It is important that all regulation everywhere is developed appropriately. The Institute can help these changes by providing the guidance and information to those regulators to ensure that biometrics will be used responsibly and ethically.
There is a lot of work ahead. I am looking forward to the challenge.
Isabelle: Thank you Ted, I have certainly enjoyed the past 19 years that I have worked with you and the Institute, and I am not yet ready to retire.
Ted: It’s hard to believe its 19 years. When we first met, I think you were expecting someone older, and now I actually am! I honestly can’t imagine anyone better to be at the helm of the Institute for the last 19 years and to see it into its future. For all the fun times, and some hard ones, it’s also been a real pleasure working with you on this incredible journey.
Founder, Biometrics Institute
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Biometix were a Founding Member in Australia