léo ramosThe selection of 100% Brazilian software for certifying and managing the Superior Electoral Tribunal’s (TSE) database will serve as a foundation for what will be the world’s largest biometric identification system based on fingerprints. The contract for the supply of large-scale fingerprint verification systems, valid for two years and worth R$82 million, was signed last month between the federal electoral body and Griaule, a small Brazilian company in Campinas, São Paulo. The agreement is part of the TSE’s plan to prevent electoral fraud and further streamline the availability of election results.
Griaule is one of the most successful examples of start-up businesses begun in the State University of Campinas’ (Unicamp) incubator. While within the incubator from 2002 to 2005, the company received financial support from the FAPESP Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (PIPE). Recognition came in 2005, when the company won the Finep (Brazilian Innovation Agency) Award, from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI), in the small innovative technology company category. The following year, the biometric system that Griaule developed came in first in the Fingerprint Verification Competition (FVC2006) as the most precise technology for verifying fingerprints in the world. The international competition is organized through a partnership between the University of Michigan and the University of San Jose, both in the United States, the University of Bologna, Italy, and the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain. After receiving the award, the company opened a sales office in Mountain View, California, in February 2007 and started exporting its services. Griaule now has clients in more than 50 countries.
In 2005, when it left the university’s campus to try to stand on its own two feet, entrepreneur Iron Daher’s company had annual sales of R$100,000. This figure jumped to R$12 million in just the first five months of 2014, without including the agreement signed with the TSE. “I think that the company’s growth was very slow, nothing happened overnight. Our income rose and fell a few times over the last decade. However, last year we managed to double our sales, from R$3 million in 2012 to R$6 million in 2013,” explains Daher, who is both the company’s CEO and its chief scientist. Griaule’s product line includes software for fingerprint, voice and face recognition. But the fingerprint recognition system is responsible for almost all of the services rendered by the company.
léo ramosInstallation of the Brazilian company’s fingerprint recognition and authentication system will take place in two stages. The software will first have to process the TSE’s current 23 million voter biometric records. This must be complete by one month before the October 2014 election, according to the agreement. Next, the system will verify the 52.8 million biometric records that the TSE intends to add prior to the 2016 elections. The agreement with the federal electoral agency is a consortium between Griaule and Oracle, a US multinational in the database and hardware industry. Griaule, responsible for providing the software, represents 44% of this project, while Oracle, which will provide the equipment, represents the remaining 56%.
The larger the database, the greater the processing demands will be when new voters are included. That is because the computers involved in the operation will have to scan all the records in order to avoid duplicate entries. “To get an idea of the complexity of the task, remember that fingerprints are collected for each of the 10 fingers of every person. Thus, the recognition software will have to process a quantity of data on the order of a quintillion,” says Felipe Bergo, a Griaule researcher.
The server, a supercomputer with almost 1500 processing cores, is assembled in the United States and shipped to Brazil. The four towers are capable comparing 3 million fingerprints per second. The computers will be installed in a safe room located at the TSE data processing center in Brasília. “Our job will be to clean up the TSE’s database, which contains 23 million sets of fingerprints from voters who are already registered in the system, to make sure that there are no duplicate voters. Then we will certify the records,” says Daher. “Some people might have registered twice by mistake, and some might even have registered with two different identities and been given two voter ID cards, enabling them to vote more than once,” he adds.
The end of 2017
Although elections in Brazil have been computerized since 2010, with the implementation of electronic voting machines in 100% of polling stations, the TSE has recorded fingerprints for only 15% of the 142.4 million Brazilian voters. Most precincts still use the voter ID card and a signature to recognize each voter. With its Biometric Voter Identification Program, begun in 2012, the TSE plans to obtain biometric data for all Brazilian voters by the end of 2017, when the total number is expected to reach around 160 million.
These records contain confidential information about millions of Brazilians and are therefore considered highly strategic. “Many intangibles are involved in this operation,” says Daher. “If it were not for Griaule, Brazil would buy this technology from another country and voters’ identities would be stored outside our domain,” says the company’s president, referring to cases of espionage involving the United States government in which sensitive information from several countries, companies and foreign governments was monitored, including President Dilma Rousseff and Petrobras.
Griaule’s significant growth has been due in large part to support for innovation from state and federal agencies, through research funding. “All this was possible only because, years ago, in 2002, Unicamp gave us an opportunity. That gave us a lot of credibility. Back then, the university did not yet have an incubator. Nor can we forget the support we received, from both FAPESP and Finep,” adds Daher. “If it were not for the two FAPESP Pipe grants, one for fingerprint recognition and one for voice recognition, we would not have reached this point.”
Griaule’s business success does not stop here. The executives plan to move into the global market, with a real chance of becoming one of the first Brazilian multinational companies in the information technology industry. The company has a lean structure, which includes 20 employees working in an administrative office and another office for software development in Campinas, both near the Unicamp campus, in addition to the sales office in the United States. Now that the business has grown, they need to hire personnel for domestic and overseas positions. There are opportunities in countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Argentina etc. “We expect to sell projects the size of the TSE project every year from now on,” says the researcher. “So we plan to double the number of employees by the end of this year and double it again by December 2015.”
Griaule is looking for professionals with special characteristics, says its president. It is looking for employees who like research and development. “Candidates must excel in this field, because we deal with the latest technology and we need to have people as good as those who work for companies in the United States or Europe,” says Daher. “We no longer lack technology, nor infrastructure. Now our real problem is finding the right brains,” he adds. According to Griaule projections, the Brazilian biometric certification business has been booming these last two years, but it is almost impossible to determine its size. Since the industry is very new and needs to consolidate, there are no surveys that allow entrepreneurs to measure the size of this market. “I think that the industry has sales of almost R$1 billion, just here in Brazil,” estimates Daher.
One of the first dilemmas faced by Griaule management was whether to restrict themselves to providing software, or expand to include hardware, such as manufacturing its own fingerprint reader. According to Daher, the idea had always been at the back of his mind, but was discarded as being too great a risk. “If we had entered that market we would have had to worry about hiring electronics experts, dealing with logistics, and finding a location for the factory,” he recalls. Instead of creating its own hardware, the company decided to develop a program that could interface with the more than 50 fingerprint readers already on the market, and to invest heavily in order to meet new demands.
“Recently, we integrated fake finger detection into our software, suitable for any fingerprint reader. What was the biggest problem that fingerprint reader manufacturers had? Fake fingers. Thanks to tutorials available on the Internet, it has become very easy to make a silicone or latex finger,” explains Daher, who decided to attack the problem as a personal challenge. “Hardware manufacturers didn’t perceive this market need, nor did the software giants see the solution of this problem as their responsibility. So Griaule solved the problem via software. Today, hardware manufacturers no longer need to worry about this.”
Griaule’s services are in great demand due to the Brazilian government’s decision to link the issuance of passports, voter ID cards and State ID cards to fingerprints, but banks are also very active in this market. In December 2013, for example, Griaule negotiated a global contract to supply its software to the Spanish bank Santander, in addition to providing biometric solutions to the Caixa Econômica Federal, a Brazilian bank that has 30,000 ATMs and another 25,000 point-of-service devices in lottery retailers. Banks in South Africa and India are among other clients of the Brazilian company. But banks are responsible for a huge percentage of the biometric identification market worldwide. “With or without Griaule technology, banks are adopting biometrics because it’s convenient for customers who no longer need a password, rather than a question of security,” says Daher. This is the case with Brazilian Family Allowance Program payments that are accessed through Griaule technology adopted by the Caixa Econômica Federal bank. “These people withdraw the money only once a month and so they forget their PINs. Now they no longer need a card nor a PIN. They can just register their fingerprints and use them as identification to access the payment,” explains Daher.
Both in the domestic and international market, competition in the biometric identity certification industry centers around four large multinational companies headquartered in the United States, Japan and Europe. The smallest of them has sales of about $1 billion a year. “They are multibillionaires, but this market is not their specialty. And perhaps this is the major difference between them and Griaule, which is small, but highly specialized in the field,” says Daher. Griaule believes that the world scenario is changing, and that the flow of technological innovations is no longer only from foreign countries to Brazil. “Now, when people talk about large-scale biometric identification systems, Griaule is recognized for its technical expertise. And this has an extremely high technological added value,” the researcher concludes.
1. Improvement of recognition quality and availability (speedcluster) of Griaule AFIS (No. 2003/07972-6); Grant Mechanism Research Grant – Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (PIPE); Principal investigator Iron Calil Daher (Griaule); Investment R$ 263,008.79 (FAPESP).
2. Digital detection and recognition of the human face (No. 2005/59952-4); Grant Mechanism Research Grant – Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (PIPE); Principal investigator Luís Mariano del Val Cura (Griaule); Investment R$ 229,877.79 (FAPESP).