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Focusing on biometrics at Comdex

Body of data: Eyeballing security

Paul Tuite, a corporate events coordinator with Xybernaut, wears the company's crowd-scanning headgear.  The wearable Xybernaut computer screens faces and compares them with a database, potentially identifying known terrorists.
Paul Tuite, a corporate events coordinator with Xybernaut, wears the company's crowd-scanning headgear. The wearable Xybernaut computer screens faces and compares them with a database, potentially identifying known terrorists.  


By Daniel Sieberg
CNN Sci-Tech

LAS VEGAS, Nevada (CNN) -- One area of technology getting a lot of attention at Comdex Fall 2001 is biometrics.

This is the screening and measurement of any personal physical human feature that might be used for identification. Airport security needs are an obvious priority, of course. And dozens of companies specializing in biometrics are on the massive Comdex showroom floor this year to show off what they're researching, developing, testing, calibrating and selling.

Facial recognition, fingerprinting, iris scanning and reading the features of a hand are leading the industry's efforts at this point, but the intent -- and possibility -- is to measure any unique trait on the body that can then be recorded and act as a password or identifier.

Will these techniques invade personal privacy? Can they help make airports and other places safer?

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Analysts say it largely depends on whether people are more willing to trade some civil liberties for security since the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Xybernaut, a company specializing in wearable computers, has designed a unit that's worn on the head. It can be used by law enforcement personnel patrolling an airport or other crowded venue. It's meant to be rugged and withstand even the rigors of a pursuit.

A camera mounted on the side of the tiny computer monitor scans faces and compares them -- via a wireless link -- to a database of wanted persons.

"We have a variety of cameras for low light," says Edward Newman, chairman, president and CEO of Xybernaut.

"We do a lot of work with the military, we do wearable computers for soldiers, SWAT teams, police, customs, DEA (the Drug Enforcement Agency). As fast as I can walk and as fast as I turn my head and look at people I could be scanning and recognizing those faces against a database of terrorists."

No passwords, no problem?

No passwords, no problem?

Another technology, this one from Electronic Data Systems (EDS), is already in use at some airports, including Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, where it has been in place since 1998.

The machine reads a person's palm and compares it to information stored on a digital "smart card." EDS officials say it can be modified to be a facial recognition machine or fingerprint reader.

It's a system intended to help expedite travelers' progress through customs. If someone doesn't have a smart card, he or she has to join the longer lines, which EDS execs say is often a difference between two hours and two minutes.

"It's meant to ensure that the person sitting next to you on the plane is who they say they are," said Mike Cooley, EDS representative.

Swedish company Precise Biometrics focuses on the use of fingerprints as a personalized "key," which company officials say could be used in a couple of different airport situations.

"One is for physical access, to allow, or avoid wrong people coming into those secure areas," said Christer Bergman, Precise's CEO. "It could also be to have a fingerprint reader to avoid the wrong people coming into your IT security systems."

Surreptitious scanning

Symtron's FaceOn facial recognition system puts your mug on the operator's screen and tests it against the facial features of people held in a database.
Symtron's FaceOn facial recognition system puts your mug on the operator's screen and tests it against the facial features of people held in a database.  

Of course, not every biometric technique implemented at airports will be something travelers can put their fingers on.

Grabbing as many as six images per second, inconspicuous facial recognition cameras can scan airport crowds and match people to a computer database of terrorists or criminals. Cameras are placed at strategic locations like the drop-off areas and boarding zones at airports.

As a security precaution, officials from both companies interviewed by CNN won't reveal the exact number or specific locations of airports using their facial recognition cameras.

To find a match, Visionics' FaceIt and Symtron's FaceOn programs use specific facial markers.

"Because we use the measurements of the skeletal structure, it doesn't change regardless of a mustache, beard, a change in pose, a change in expression," says Jason Chaikin, business development director at Visionics. But, he concedes, a mask may fool the system since it looks for certain features.

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Another potential problem with this technology is that it currently can't process a profile image of a person. But companies are trying to counter that situation.

"The more cameras you have, the more images the cameras can feed into the database for comparative purposes," says Charles Chung, product manager at Symtron Technology Inc.

Symtron is working with computer-maker Compaq to put the technology onto a handheld personal digital assistant and make it portable, similar to the advancements touted by roving sharp-eyed Xybernaut.

Chaikin says Visionics doesn't keep any record of a person if there's no match, but Chung notes that Symtronics may keep images gathered to enhance the database of information. He says a photo of someone isn't necessarily too invasive, and may help in the future to combat terrorism or crime.

Privacy concerns

EDS' palm-reading system is centered around an Express Entry kiosk at which you lend a hand -- and the program compares its features to those registered on a
EDS' palm-reading system is centered around an Express Entry kiosk at which you lend a hand -- and the program compares its features to those registered on a "smart card."  

While all companies interviewed by CNN said they're aware of privacy concerns and taking them seriously, that isn't enough to satisfy civil liberties groups.

Biometrics is not infallible, and even with 98- or 99-percent accuracy, there will still be many false positives and negatives, say critics. Keeping track of smart cards may also prove to be a challenge. And there are concerns about what may happen to any database of personal information.

Members of the online activist group Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) say they're wary of the use of biometrics at airports, especially because it hasn't been proven 100-percent effective.

Lee Tien, a senior attorney with the EFF, says the debate isn't a new one, given that surveillance technology has been in place for many years.

But he acknowledges the increased interest since September 11. And while he admits some people may be more willing to accept infringement on their civil liberties since the terrorist attacks, he says there are still serious privacy concerns involved.

"We're approaching the use of biometrics very, very cautiously," Tien says. "We feel that the technology is not even close to the accuracy being claimed by some of these companies. As such, there will be thousands of false negatives and false positives when you scale up the millions of travelers."

Tien also questions how any databases of personal information will be used, and he says the EFF would prefer to see companies use an open-source method of development in order to see first-hand how accurate the readings are.



 
 
 
 


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RELATED SITES:
• CNN Sci-Tech's Comdex Fall 2001 stories
• CNNMoney's Comdex Fall 2001 special coverage
• Comdex Fall 2001

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