Facial Recognition Fails Airport Test


Camera technology designed to spot potential terrorists by their facial characteristics at airports failed its first major test, a report from the airport that tested the technology shows.

Last year, two separate face-recognition systems at Boston’s Logan Airport failed 96 times to detect volunteers who played potential terrorists as they passed security checkpoints during a three-month test period, the airport’s analysis says. The systems correctly detected them 153 times.

According to USA Today, the airport’s report calls the rate of inaccuracy “excessive.” The report was completed in July 2002 but not made public. The American Civil Liberties Union obtained a copy last month through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Logan is where 10 of the 19 terrorists boarded the flights that were later hijacked Sept. 11, 2001. The airport is now testing other security technology, including infrared cameras and eyeball scans.

In the Logan Airport experiment, photographs of 40 airport employees were put into a database. The employees then attempted to pass through two security checkpoints where face-recognition cameras were used.

A spokesman for one of the companies whose system was tried at Logan Airport says the test was not a fair measure of the technology. Meir Kahtan of Identix of Minnetonka, Minn., says the technology is far better suited for “one-to-one” identification, such as comparing photos on passports or driver’s licenses, than random searches of photo databases.

A government test in 2002 found that face-recognition systems scored correct matches more than 90 percent of the time when used for such one-to-one identifications.

The Logan experiment was the largest test of facial-recognition technology made public. The technology has also been tested using smaller groups of volunteers at airports in Dallas/Fort Worth, Fresno, Calif., and Palm Beach County, Fla., with similar results.

Kelly Shannon, spokeswoman for the State Department’s consular affairs office, said the Logan Airport results would not affect plans to use face recognition to enhance passport security. Beginning in October 2004, the United Kingdom, Japan and 25 other countries whose nationals are permitted to travel to the U.S. without visas are required to convert to passport photos that are compatible with facial recognition systems.

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