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Airport security aiming for new technologies

face mapping
Certain landmarks on a human face can be mapped quickly to match people with a database of images, and things like wigs and beards can't fool the software.  

From David George
CNN Science & Technology Unit

(CNN) -- Travelers have no doubt witnessed increased security in airports across the United States since the attacks of September 11. But it's what they wouldn't see that might protect them from would-be terrorists -- cameras, sporting face recognition technology, aimed at them.

Face recognition -- first introduced in airports at Keflavik International in Iceland -- is poised to become a major weapon in the war against terrorism, aviation industry officials say.

Focusing on features like the bridge of the nose, the size of the mouth, and the angle of the cheekbones, the computer technology scans faces in crowds, identifies 80 so-called landmarks on the face, and creates face prints that are compared to a database of suspected terrorists.

Joseph Atick: How the facial recognition security system works  

Joseph Atick, chairman and CEO of leading face recognition player Visionics Corp., says the technology needs to locate only 14 to 20 landmarks to identify someone, and it's not fooled by wigs or fake beards.

"It's like a fingerprint. It's unique to you," says Atick. "We don't have the fingerprints of terrorist groups, but we do have the pictures of the terrorist groups."

If the technology "recognizes" a face, a silent alarm notifies airport authorities to approach the passenger for questioning.

palm- and fingerprinting
Travelers can bypass immigration procedures at nearly a dozen North American airports by registering their palmprints.  

Atick claims Visionics' face recognition system could have caught the terrorists responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- before they committed the acts.

"Knowing what I know about the technology, and knowing that these individuals entered this country through a border checkpoint through Canada, there is a high probability that they would have been identified had FaceIt technology been in place to capture their images and match them against the data bases that they were supposedly included in the 'watch list,' " Atick says.

Face recognition technology is just one example of "biometrics," the process of identifying people through physical characteristics. Fingerprints, DNA, and the retina and iris of the eye are other examples of biometrics.

Eye recognition technology, in fact, has already been tested in Charlotte, North Carolina's airport. Over 6,000 people recently submitted their eye prints to airlines in an effort to speed the passage of travelers through the airport. It proved to be 100 percent accurate.

Frequent airline travelers can already bypass immigration procedures at nearly a dozen North American airports by registering their palm prints with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

checking papers
Checking identification the old-fashioned way -- by airport workers -- is still a major part of security.  

The technologies save time to give greater scrutiny to suspicious travelers, airline officials say.

"By providing a better service to passengers who are known to immigration inspectors or airlines, you thereby remove them from the pool of those who need to be inspected," says Thomas Windmuller of the International Air Transport Association.

Some envision a time when biometrics technology replaces ID badges for employees at airports.

While biometric experts admit the technology is not perfect -- and while some critics say it's an invasion of privacy there's a stronger push to implement it since the events of September 11.

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

"It is time now to start thinking about boarding planes not as a right but as a privilege granted to those who are willing to go through the security system," says Atick.


• International Air Transport Association
• Visionics

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