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Can face recognition keep airports safe?

Since Sept. 11, airline officials have been clamoring to add security technology, including face-recognition systems. One problem, says the ACLU: "The technology doesn't work."

As U.S. airports begin installing face-recognition systems to thwart terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, civil rights activists are rushing to decry the technology as ineffective and invasive.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday derided the use of face-recognition software in airports, saying it doesn't work and "offers us neither order nor liberty."

The report comes the same day that ADT Security Services, one of the largest security companies, with a growing presence in airports, agreed to use face-recognition systems from Visionics. Boston's Logan International Airport also announced plans earlier this week to install such technology.

Officials at airports across the country are clamoring to implement additional safety measures to protect travelers and employees against potential terrorist threats. Some security experts, who believe better high-tech surveillance systems could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks, have said they are optimistic about the use of face-recognition technology and other so-called biometric security devices. But civil rights advocates worry that out-of-date photos and poor lighting could result in numerous misidentifications.

"It is abundantly clear that the security benefits of (face-recognition surveillance) would be minimal to nonexistent, for a very simple reason: The technology doesn't work," according to a report from the ACLU, citing a survey from the Department of Defense on the technology's high margin of error in pinpointing terrorists.

Equally concerned with the technology's rising adoption, high-profile privacy expert Richard Smith abandoned his post at the Privacy Foundation this week to evaluate and consult on security issues surrounding biometrics, including face-scanning devices.

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  Facing new security at airports
Thomas Colatosti, CEO, Viisage Technology
Biometrics is the digital analysis using cameras or scanners of biological characteristics such as facial structure, fingerprints and iris patterns to match profiles to databases of people such as suspected terrorists. Some experts say face recognition is perhaps the most promising biometric technique for overcrowded airports because it relies on distant cameras to identify people--not finger scanners or other devices requiring people to click, touch or stand in a particular position.

Several airports are adopting such face-recognition software in an effort to beef up security after the suicide bombings on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In addition to the Logan airport in Boston, Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif.; T.F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I.; and Fresno Yosemite International Airport in California are among those adopting identification technology to check passengers.

As a result, leading biometric companies including Littleton, Mass.-based Viisage Technology and Minnetonka, Minn.-based Visionics are experiencing enormous demand from the government, security officials and investors. Share prices of many of these companies have surged more than 300 percent since Sept. 11.

Visionics, one of the biggest makers of face-recognition systems, signed a deal Thursday with conglomerate Tyco International to distribute Visionics' FaceIt technology through Tyco's ADT unit. ADT provides security systems at some 100 of the nation's 450 commercial airports, ranging from card-entry systems to metal detectors and security cameras.

Gartner analyst Bill Keller says that after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States started to explore the wider use of face recognition technology as an anti-terrorist tool. But this technology has other potential applications that may actually help to preserve privacy and confidentiality.

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False sense of security
But civil libertarians say biometric companies are preying on the country's fears about safety rather than offering a promising solution to prevent terrorism.

"Anyone who claims that facial-recognition technology is an effective law-enforcement tool is probably working for one of the companies trying to sell it to the government," according to the ACLU's report.

The group cited a study by the Department of Defense that recorded a high rate of error when identifying suspects--even under ideal settings such as scanning a person's image under bright lights, face forward. The study showed a large number of "false positives," wrongly matching people with photos of others, and "false negatives," missing people not in the database.

"Facial-recognition software is easily tripped up by changes in hairstyle or facial hair, by aging, weight gain or loss, and by simple disguises," the ACLU report said. "That suggests, if installed in airports, these systems would miss a high proportion of suspects included in the photo database, and flag huge numbers of innocent people--thereby lessening vigilance, wasting precious manpower resources, and creating a false sense of security."

Takeo Kanade, a professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, agreed--to an extent--with the ACLU's evaluation of facial recognition.

"When it comes to a problem of comparing mug shots from the front under good lighting conditions, and pictures that don't include aging effects, then the problem is a relatively easy problem to solve," he said. Solutions could include placing cameras so they scan people standing in place, such as at a check-in counter metal detector.

"However, the difficulty is recognizing people under varying conditions, (which) is required for a surveillance type of purpose," Kanade added. If the picture is taken from the side, if the person has an animated expression, or even if a person is wearing sunglasses, all can make recognition more difficult.

Yet, Kanade said he believed face recognition could make it easier to ensure airport security.

"The system can be used as a screening method," he said. "If the police have to look at 10,000 people rather than 1 million people, then it is worth it."

Joseph Atick, Visionics' founder and CEO, said in an earlier interview that the technology is best thought of as a first line of defense.

"It gives you somewhere in the 90s (percentile) in terms of effectiveness of the shield. Without creating any barricades, we can stop nine out of 10 terrorists," he said, adding an oft-quoted axiom in security circles: "There is no such thing as a 100 percent shield."

Visionics' technology can scan about 15 faces a second, compiling 84 bytes of data for each face detected in a frame of video. It maps the landmarks of the face including nose, eyes and mouth to create a digital "faceprint" of a person. The faceprint is then compared to a database of tens of thousands of other biometric IDs representing criminals, terrorists or other people for whom security is looking.

Chasing the wrong people
Atick acknowledged, though, that an average of a handful of false alarms a day, per airport, is likely. If passengers are frequently mistaken for terrorists, it could become a burden for travelers.

In addition, U.S. authorities in many cases don't know who the terrorists are, much less have a picture on file, said security consultant Smith.

"There's kind of a disconnect here," he said. "We can only spot terrorists who we have photos of--and why wouldn't we arrest them sooner in that case? How do we find them if we don't know what they look like?"

The Sept. 11 attacks underscored the United States' limited knowledge about who the terrorists are. Of the 19 Muslim extremists who hijacked the four commercial airlines, only two were reported to be on a CIA watch list.

In the end, the systems may be used far more often for nabbing smaller fish, Smith said.

"What really happens is that we end up going after petty criminals," he said. "A better approach is installing better doors in airplanes so that terrorists can't get in cockpits, which the government is doing."

In its report, the ACLU said that several government agencies including the Immigration and Naturalization Service office have abandoned face-recognition systems after finding they did not work as advertised. The INS, it said, experimented with using the technology to identify people in cars at the Mexico-U.S. border.

Nevertheless, other biometric devices have already made inroads in the United States. For example, New York's JFK airport uses hand scanners, but the purpose is to speed frequent flyers through customs--not to spot terrorists.

The Department of Defense has also funded the development of face-recognition technology as a weapon in its war on drugs. Department officials tested the technology to increase border security several years ago with "varying success." It continues to evaluate the effectiveness of the technology today.

"Face recognition at this time is still a very new technology. As with any new technology, there are items that have an impact on system effectiveness, including lighting, pose, temporal variation, distance and subject participation," said Stacia Courtney, spokeswoman for the department's Counter Drug Development Program Office.

Iain Drummond, CEO of biometric company Imagys, said that despite concerns, the public will eventually accept face-scanning devices as the norm in airports. Imagys is providing face-recognition software to Oakland International Airport.

"If you look back about 20 years, there were no X-ray machines," he said. "But no one grumbles about it today."

News.com's Rachel Konrad contributed to this report.