November 1, 2001, Updated March 3, 2015

The same technology used to ensure that known terrorists are not passing from the Gaza Strip into Israel is now being considered for introduction at airports and other public facilities throughout the United States.

Visionics, a publicly traded American company based in Jersey City, is competing with rival company Viisage to apply its revolutionary face recognition technology at Logan Airport in Boston, following successful applications throughout the world. Oakland International will soon begin using the face recognition technology of Imagis in a limited capacity.

Face recognition technology is being touted as a powerful weapon in the war on terrorism, but experts who have tested so-called biometric systems warn that their potential for spotting terrorists before they board commercial airliners is overstated. The technology still has quite a way to go before it can weed out unwanted passengers. Even so, investors have poured money into the stock of the leading biometrics companies firms since the September attacks.

Visionics and Viisage each will set up, at its own expense, a trial facial recognition system at undisclosed checkpoints at Logan, the Boston Globe reported recently. Logan officials plan to evaluate the technology for 90 days to determine if it would be useful in enhancing security.

Oakland International, citing costs, will not use the technology to scan crowds or people passing through security. The airport will use the system only in interrogation rooms to match suspects brought in for questioning to a database of wanted criminals’ pictures. San Francisco International also is considering installing a face recognition system, but no plans have been announced.

A new demand
The move toward such technology is part of a broad effort to enhance security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington. Joseph J. Atick, founder and CEO of Visionics and an inventor of face recognition technology, watched from his office across the Hudson River as the World Trade Center towers crumbled.

“It was just unbelievable,” said Atick, who lost a friend in the attack. “To see the skyline altered once and for all without the World Trade Center is a major shock.”

Atick and his colleagues at Visionics immediately intensified their efforts to create a security system that could identify terrorists and other criminals by comparing their facial characteristics to a database.

“We feel we’re doing something to help this country defend itself,” he said. “Terrorists aren’t born overnight. They are indoctrinated, schooled. Somebody checks your credit card when you buy something. Why can’t we check if you’re a terrorist or not when you’re boarding a plane?”

Visionics was founded by Atick and two fellow physicists, Norman Redlich and Paul Griffin, from Princeton University’s Institute of Advanced Studies. They arrived at face recognition from a theoretical angle. “We were computational neuroscientists, trying to understand the evolution of human vision,” he recalled.

Atick started his career as a teenager in Israel. At the age of 15, he dropped out of high school and proceeded to write a 600-page physics textbook titled “Introduction to Modern Physics.”

“I was bored in school. I wanted to show the establishment I was serious about my interests,” he said. The book, it turned out, was his ticket to graduate school – the following year. Stanford University accepted him at age 16 into its graduate program, where he earned his master’s degree in physics and PhD in mathematical physics.

Visionics says its face recognition system can compare one photo with 60 million pictures in a database and select a match. “We’ve gone a lot further than the human brain, which only needs to recognize a few members of society,” Atick said. Indeed, one of the most important recognition factors was identifying a threat. “For a species, it’s a very competitive domain. One thing we have to perform well from the day we’re born to the day we die is recognizing friend and foe.”

Atick and his colleagues were perplexed by how the brain deals with the huge amount of visual input. “A human is bombarded by data equivalent to three to four books a second,” he says. He and his colleagues discovered that the brain handles visual data much as computer algorithms compress files, automatically eliminating redundant information and remembering only distinctive features. That led the scientists to develop computer models of facial characteristics, or landmarks, that would differentiate one face from all others.

Visionics concluded there are up to 80 landmarks on the whole face. But to make a match, its algorithm needs to find only 14 points that are alike, usually located where the curvature of the face changes. It reduces distinctive information to an 84-byte code. Once the computer creates a template of the face – a faceprint – it can search a photo database for a match. The system can check 1 million records per second.

The company develops and markets pattern-recognition software called FaceIt that, in contrast to competing technologies that record data for the entire face, verifies a person’s identity based on a set of four facial features unique to the individual and unaffected by facial hair, changes in expression, changes due to aging, and alterations caused by plastic surgery.

“Our skull doesn’t change with age,” Atick said. “We may get wrinkled, but that’s not what we’re looking at.” There is one limitation of the recognition technology, however: it cannot distinguish identical twins.

Once a faceprint is calculated, it can be compared with those of known terrorists and criminals already on file. Though faces lifted from security cameras can be used to create faceprints, Atick suggests altering the airline boarding process so that passengers must look directly into a camera and provide their faceprint when they present a boarding pass.

“Just like a Visa or American Express transaction doesn’t go through until you get authorization approval, a person will only be authorized to board a plane if their face doesn’t match a terrorist,” Atick said. “Terrorism is not faceless. We had pictures of two of the terrorists from the attacks.”

Implementation of such a system may cost airports several hundred thousand dollars each, and may cause additional delays in boarding. But since Sept. 11, the extra costs and inconveniences may seem a small price to pay.

“I would say with sadness in my heart that the days are over when we can just use a driver’s license that could have been made with a false identity,” Atick saID. “In most cases, the agent at the gate doesn’t even look at it.”

Global reach
Atick told reporters that his company is doing business in roughly 50 to 60 countries, including China, but will not sell to Iraq, Libya or Iran.

One of Visionics’ early commercial breakthroughs was in Israel, where its software is being used to “manage the flow of individuals entering and exiting the Gaza Strip,” according to the company’s promotional material.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense chose the FaceIt software as a key component of its automatic biometric border crossing system on a smart card platform to expedite the border crossing process for Palestinian workers. “The system delivers convenience to the daily workers by eliminating long lines at the border,” Atick said, “while at the same time maintaining the high standard of security required in that part of the world. We are pleased to see our technology deployed in the service of peace and stability in the Middle East.”

The Visionics system also has been successful for law enforcement in England, where it reportedly has reduced crime dramatically in districts where it is used, and in a recent presidential election in Mexico, where it reduced electoral fraud. Las Vegas casinos are reportedly using it to nab card sharks. Systems are installed in Keflavik airport in Iceland, and most controversially, in Ybor City in Tampa, Florida.

When the FaceIt system was turned on in Tampa, protesters flipped on masks and flipped off security cameras. They chanted, “Big Bro, hell, no.” Even so, the Tampa City Council still allows local police to use the technology to scan the streets and employed face recognition at the 2001 Super Bowl, causing some critics to dub the event the “Snooper Bowl.” No terrorists were identified, but a suspected ticket scalper was recognized. He got away.

Hoping to allay privacy fears, Atick is urging lawmakers to codify a principle he calls “no match, no memory,” whereby facial recognition systems would be prohibited from keeping tabs on people captured on camera who did not bring up a criminal match. “Only criminals will be there in the database,” Atick said. “And if you do not match, the system should not have any record or memory of you. There is no audit trail of where you’ve been, whom you have associated with, or where you’re going. This is simply an alarm that sounds when a criminal shows up.”

Visionics’ technology has piqued the interest of the Defense Department, which has granted the company more than $2 million toward developing FaceIt. The Pentagon is administering a $50 million program, HumanID, to improve face-recognition capability. The goal is to guard U.S. embassies and military installations overseas from would-be terrorists. “We need a counter-terrorism initiative with a database,” Atick said. “If agencies step up to the plate today and said, ‘We will provide the database,’ we could give you a system tomorrow,”

Even with a database, such systems will aid in capturing only people who have already been identified – using traditional intelligence techniques – as possible terrorists. But a terrorist who is legally in the United States and not wanted by any law enforcement agency would sail right through.

The federal government, perhaps putting its finger on this problem, has ordered another Visionics system that taps into the much larger fingerprint database. The company recently received an order from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for 10 of its FingerPrinter CMS live scan fingerprint systems, which digitally capture and electronically submit fingerprint images to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The face of the future is wireless
Atick believes that wireless technology will enable face recognition technology to become a critical tool to the mass market – to protect personal privacy.

“Personal digital assistants (PDAs) and cell phones are becoming our portal to the world, our transaction devices, our ID and maybe one day our passport,” he said. But there is tremendous risk in having these small gadgets contain so much personal and financial information. “It is this need for security,” Atick says, “that is going to drive biometrics.”

Visionics, whose FaceIt software runs on Pocket PCs, is taking advantage of this combination of need and infrastructure by developing tools to enable people to authenticate any transaction they make over the wireless Web using their own faces. And as futuristic as his vision is, he is really striving toward something a bit old-fashioned. “Essentially, we are bringing back an old element of human commerce,” said Atick, restoring the confidence that comes with doing business face-to-face.

Atick himself should be confident. Demand for his company’s technology has soared since Sept. 11 and Visionics in October closed a $20 million private placement to meet the surge in demand. The stock price of the publicly traded company, which was sinking before the attacks, has increased more than 300 percent since then. One might be tempted to call the turnaround quite a remarkable about-face.

Descriptions of public companies contained herein should not be interpreted as representing an endorsement to buy or sell shares. Authors may or may not hold shares in the listed companies.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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