Airport facial recognition trial falls flat

Plans for facial recognition security systems at US airports have had to be abandoned because they are simply not good enough.

That is the conclusion of managers at Palm Beach International Airport in Florida following an eight week trial of technology from Jersey City, New Jersey-based Visionics and Miami, Florida-based ATC Systems Integrators.

Face-scanning technology was supposed to help detect terrorists by taking snapshots of passengers as they go through routine airport security checks. The pictures are then matched against photos of suspects held in a database. The system checks a set of 80 facial features – if 14 are the same, a match is deemed achieved.

The airport trialed the technology with a control group of 15 employees against a database that included 250 snapshots. Airport officials declared that the trial results were not entirely convincing – only 47% were successfully matched. In addition, the rate of ‘false positives’ was deemed unacceptably high.

Visionics’ Argus face-scanning technology has been criticised by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which got hold of a copy of Palm Beach County’s Department of Airports’ official report. ACLU says that Visionics’ terrorist-tracking scanners are not only ineffective, but that they also represent an invasion of privacy.

Following the events of 11 September 2001, there is considerable interest in technologies such as that developed by Visionics, but the Palm Beach tests have vindicated the claims of security expert Bruce Schneier.

In the days after the terrorist attack on New York, he warned against the installation of facial recognition systems, arguing that with millions of passengers passing through major airports, even a 99.99% accuracy rate would incur thousands of false alarms every year.

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Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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