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A database of faces: Pros and cons

Some say face-recognition technology will strengthen security at airports, but privacy advocates say biometrics is too unreliable. Both sides will make their case in Washington.

Politicians, academics and technology executives will focus on biometrics and technology's role in homeland security during a Feb. 12 congressional briefing in Washington.

Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Arlen Specter, R-Penn., and Reps. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Mike Doyle, D-Penn., and Melissa Hart, R-Penn., are co-sponsoring the afternoon briefing, one of several high-profile meetings about the merits and potential privacy concerns of face-recognition technology following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The suicide bombing missions sparked concern among aviation experts and border patrollers, who are demanding beefed-up surveillance at airports and international checkpoints. But privacy advocates are worried that the technology will unfairly single out certain individuals based on their ethnicity or random similarity to felons or suspected terrorists.

Howard Wactlar, vice provost for research computing at Carnegie Mellon University, will provide data during the presentation. Executives from Madison, Wis.-based digital multimedia company Sonic Foundry will demonstrate the company's Unified Security View security technology, which they say provides a more practical alternative to the currently proposed National ID Card System.

Proponents of the National ID Card System want to issue new security cards to every American. But critics say creating and distributing a tamperproof, inimitable card for an estimated 286 million Americans would be expensive and time-consuming, if not impossible.

Instead of directly embedding information into an entirely new type of card, many scientists are pushing for a system based on biometric data stored in secure databases. This system could then correlate information in the database with photos and other information already stored in drivers' licenses and passports.