The Face Value of Biometrics

Biometrics is one of the most intriguing areas of electronic security technologies ever developed, but also one of the slowest to catch on. However, that may finally be changing.

As Reed Exhibitions Executive Director Dean Russo states in this month’s “Industry Pulse,” the recent ISC West event in Las Vegas saw an influx of more biometrics exhibitors. Biometrics offers exciting possibilities and I have long believed that, if deployed properly, it could be a boon to national security and our industry.

Biometrics has been around for longer than most folks realize. In fact, many high-security facilities – such as nuclear power plants and military buildings – were using hand geometry readers long before 9/11 created such a buzz about biometrics. However, providers were ultimately undone by unrealistic expectations and reliability, cost and privacy issues.

Shortly after 9/11, I wrote a column (see “Time Is About to Run Out for the Bad Guys” from the January 2002 issue) urging the widespread use of facial recognition technology and a national criminal database to get all American citizens involved in catching crooks and terrorists. The article incited a rash of impassioned response from people on both sides of the issue. In hindsight, I realize I was a bit carried away with my outrage in the wake of the attacks.
In the two-and-a-half years since, I have often thought about alternative ways to apply biometrics technology. As a frequent flier who always seems to be the one “randomly” selected for a thorough search, I have particularly considered how it could be used to improve the convenience and safety of airline passengers.

While it’s true many of the failed beta test programs have taken place in airports, I believe the approaches have been ill conceived. Facial recognition still makes the most sense and has the potential to be the least invasive, most sanitary and fastest method.

The reason for the downfall of facial recognition is conceptual: How can you expect technology that relies on precise data to function optimally in an imprecise environment? You can’t! Yet cameras linked to facial recognition software were supposed to be able to identify people from among crowds, even if they were wearing disguises. That’s like trying to get a CD covered with dirt to play properly – garbage in, garbage out! In addition, generating and maintaining the necessary databases for such systems is next to impossible.

Here’s what I propose. Sell facial recognition to the airlines to use during preboarding screening for frequent fliers. This would not be for just any yokel with a frequent flier card! No, this would be for serious business travelers and others who have reached a designated mileage plateau of say 50,000 miles or more.

Preferred customers should be treated as VIPs and this program would help accomplish that by making the flying experience much more pleasant. It would also reinvigorate the airline industry, and business in general, by making the process of traveling easier and faster. In addition, it would thin the herd of occasional fliers and allow security personnel to better focus on those who pose a greater potential threat.

The program would be completely voluntary and require qualified applicants to undergo a registration process. They would have to supply their birth certificate and picture ID, and submit to a precise facial recognition scan taken in a clean, controlled environment. At the airport, each preferred passenger would step before a camera for a facial scan under the supervision of security personnel. The procedure would then quickly analyze the data, compare it against the carrier’s database and accurately determine if they are who they are supposed to be.

These screening systems would have to be meticulously maintained via strict regulations enforced by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the airlines themselves. It would be well worth the cost and effort, though, as this approach would make maximum use of a great technology, stimulate the economy and help keep good, law-abiding citizens from being unduly hassled.

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