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Face recognition may enhance airport security


From David George
CNN Science & Technology Unit

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- As airports scramble to beef up security in the wake of the September 11 attacks, aviation industry insiders say face recognition technology could become a major weapon in the war against terrorism.

Iceland is the first airport in the world to announce it's using the technology to screen passengers, and others may follow its lead.

The human face has 80 so-called landmarks -- including the bridge and tip of the nose, the size of the mouth and eyes, and the cheekbones.

Scanning 15 faces at a time, comparing them to a database of images at the rate of a million faces a second, face recognition technology needs only 14 to 20 of those 80 landmarks to spot a face authorities are looking for.

CNN's David George has more on an Iceland airport's use of new technology to help fight terrorism (September 27)

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"We don't have the fingerprints of terrorist groups. But we do have the pictures of terrorist groups," said Joseph Atick, chairman and CEO of Visionics Corp., which markets face recognition equipment.

The technology is so precise, Atick says, that it can't be fooled by disguises such as wigs or fake beards.

It's just one example of what's called biometrics, the process of identifying people by unique physical characteristics. A fingerprint, for example, is a biometric, as is DNA.

So are the retina and iris. A test of eye recognition technology designed to speed the passage of travelers through the Charlotte, North Carolina, airport proved 100 percent accurate in more than 6,000 applications among people who had previously submitted "eye prints" to their airlines.

Industry spokesmen say moving known passengers through the airport faster gives immigration and security officers more time to concentrate on travelers who might warrant greater scrutiny.

Biometric technology has replaced badges and ID cards for employees at many airports. Frequent travelers can bypass immigration procedures at nearly a dozen North American airports by registering their palm prints with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Biometrics backers say this kind of technology is the key to increasing airport security.

"We're not going to solve every problem, no matter how many biometric technologies we deploy. But we will certainly concentrate the problem and use resources more efficiently," said Richard Norton of the International Biometric Industry Association.

The industry says there need to be rules to protect the privacy of people whose faces are scanned in public places, but argues that harsh new realities require vigorous, technology-based responses that include biometrics.

"I say this is a paradigm shift in the world of security," Atick said, "because there is a paradigm shift in the world of war and terror."


• Visionics Corp.
• Federal Aviation Administration
• Immigration and Naturalization Service
• International Biometric Industry Association
• Keflavik International Airport

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