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Joseph Atick: How the facial recognition security system works

Dr. Joseph Atick is a co-founder of Visionics Corporation, and currently serves as President and CEO. He and his colleagues have developed "FaceIt" face recognition, a biometric technology that can automatically detect and capture faces from security cameras and identify them against a database of known terrorists. He joined chat room on Monday, October 01, 2001.

CNN: Welcome to Newsroom, Joseph Atick and thank you for joining us.

JOSEPH ATICK: I thank everyone for participating with us this morning, and I look forward to your questions and helping you understand the kind of technology available in this country to make our travel process a little safer.

CNN: What type of facial recognition technology did your company develop for airport security use?

ATICK: We're talking about FaceIt, face recognition technology, which allows you to scan faces from live video, from standard security cameras, and match each face that appears in the field of view against a watchlist database, such as terrorists and criminals. If a match happens, you can alert someone. If a match doesn't happen, there's no memory of you appearing in front of the cameras. It's not a national ID, but can spot certain individuals that have been listed as terrorists or criminals, who constitute a threat against public safety.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Which systems' databases will be searched for the matches? Will the international community share their database info?

ATICK: Today we know that terror is not faceless, we know there are many international organizations including Interpol, Scotland Yard, and our own intelligence organizations, who have databases of people with known terrorist connections. The fact is, terrorists do not develop overnight. They need to be indoctrinated and need to be with other terror cells over the years. That gives opportunity for their identities to be tracked, including photographs. We had photographs of at least three of the hijackers, known to us and the French, and we were in the position of stopping them early by matching them with databases. Cooperation is now evident, because the threat is not just toward the United States, and we suspect that as the U.S. leads the fight, we'll need the cooperation of our allies in the civilized world.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Wouldn't this just prompt terrorists to change their appearances? Wouldn't fingerprinting be a better way to recognize these people? They are well trained at stealing identities, but fingerprints can't be changed.

Joseph Atick
Joseph Atick  

ATICK: There are two answers to this question. One is that terrorists will not give us a fingerprint in advance. The facial images are available because we have covert people taking pictures. For instance, two of the terrorists were photographed meeting in Malaysia. FaceIt technology does not work by examining the superficial looks of your face. It works by establishing an analytical measurement of the landmarks of your face, and how they fit together. So if you add a moustache, add glasses, even do standard plastic surgery, that will not alter the fundamental landmarks of your face.

Moreover, the representation of landmarks of your face is over-redundant. There are more landmarks than you need for positive identification. In fact, we have about 80 landmarks, when you only need about 14. Some of the landmarks might be blocked by facial hair or altered by silicone injections, but the original face can still be found, and the original identity ascertained. This is truly a fingerprint in your face.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Atick, can facial recognition differentiate between identical twins?

ATICK: No. If their mother can't tell them apart, the technology can't, either. But if Osama bin Laden had a twin, we would definitely want to speak to him as well.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Have you gotten any airports to sign up to use your technology?

ATICK: I'd like to say that the interest in adopting this technology for public safety dates before the horrific events of September 11. Since then, there has been a dramatic increase in interest, coming from airports and other organizations concerned with safety, public transportation, government buildings, stadiums, etc. At this point, I can't say what orders have come through and where they're going. We've had to put some of the international orders on a delayed schedule to accommodate the United States. I cannot give detailed comments, because others will make announcements as time permits, and as national security permits.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How confident can a member of the general public be that a scanned photo won't be passed on to a third party, such as to the media?

ATICK: Obviously, facial scanning is powerful and requires responsible use. We have implemented ways in the system to encourage responsible use. For instance, if there is no match, there is no memory. But we also have been calling for oversight and public policy from Congress to ensure that these systems are not misused down the line. We have technical ways to see that this is not misused, but we also don't want people to alter the system for misuse. It's not national ID, or a way to track the honest majority. It's a system that's to be used for spotting terrorists and criminals.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Given that most of the hijackers were unknown and not listed as terrorists or criminals, could face recognition have helped on September11?

ATICK: At least three were already known. Two were being sought after since August 21, and the third, we found out that the French knew about him and had warned us. We will know more about the rest of the group, but I want to re-emphasize that terror is not faceless. If they're using individuals not known to anyone around the world, then there's nothing we can do, but since some of these were known, I can't help but imagine that we could have identified and intercepted at least some of these. CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

ATICK: I'd like to point out that this is technology that has been in development for a long time. It is scalable, and can be used responsibly, and controlled to prevent from being misused. It's important to have realistic expectations about defense, and I believe this will enhance our safety, but it's a component in many ways that airline industry and safety must come together.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Joseph Atick.

Joseph Atick joined via telephone from Washington, DC. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview on Monday, October 01, 2001.


• Visionics Corporation

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