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Commentary: An anti-terrorism tool, and more

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.

By Bill Keller, Gartner analyst

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.

See news story:
Can face recognition keep airports safe?

As with most new technologies, face recognition will experience many false starts before proving its benefits. Tampa, Florida, deployed face recognition technology not only in its Ybor City neighborhood to help combat crime, but also at this year's Super Bowl to help prevent terrorism. As cameras scanned the crowd, the technology compared the faces of the spectators with the faces of criminals and runaways that were contained in a database.

Predictably, many object to using face recognition the way Tampa has, arguing that the technology gives too much power to the state and that it increases the chance for misidentifications and false arrests. Others contend that the technology provides a relatively unintrusive means to apprehend known felons and potential terrorists, as opposed to more traditional police practices such as random street searches or roadblocks.

Face recognition systems can also help increase security in the nation's schools by screening visitors or providing rapid feedback on the possible criminal records of those seeking positions as school employees, day care workers or bus drivers.

Ultimately, the courts will decide the right balance between privacy and security; it remains unclear whether they will find programs such as Tampa's legal. New initiatives should be implemented to minimize privacy concerns, and industry and governments should work together to develop legislation and policies that address these concerns. For example, images collected by the police in Tampa are erased if there is no match.

Protecting privacy
Agencies and the public should also examine face recognition as an authentication tool. Face recognition systems hold promise as access-control mechanisms because they are unobtrusive, hands-free and relatively inexpensive to install and operate--especially compared with iris-scanning systems (which offer a superior identification method). Portable cameras can be easily added to remote and mobile workstations, and can be used as an authentication device when allowing access to private data or financial records at ATMs and elsewhere.

For example, for the past few years the health care industry has used face recognition to control physicians' access to computer-based patient record systems. In addition, departments of motor vehicles in several states have begun to use face recognition software to reduce identity theft and driver's license fraud by scanning old driver's license photos and comparing them with new photographs of drivers. Such uses can help secure the public's privacy, rather than harm it.

Face recognition software could also be applied to voter identification and authentication. For relatively little money, governments could properly identify eligible voters when they show up at the polls on Election Day. According to a report issued by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, confusion at polling places caused the loss of 500,000 to 1.2 million votes during the 2000 U.S. presidential election. The Mexican Federal Election Institute used face recognition software in Mexico's 2000 presidential elections to eliminate duplicate voter registrations.

The use of face recognition software for voter identification and authentication would necessitate two things: a centralized, statewide voting registry, and an even closer relationship between departments of motor vehicles and election boards. The motor vehicle agencies could perform the original face capture during the driver licensing process. Such an arrangement would benefit public safety as well.

However, the use of face recognition software for voting would raise additional privacy concerns, which would need to be aggressively addressed. Conceivably, the system could be offered as one of several voter verification methods, each of which could only be used if the individual chooses.

(For a related commentary on how the business world should respond to the war on terrorism, see

Entire contents, Copyright ? 2001 Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.