Face recognition devices failed in test at Logan

The Boston Globe | September 3, 2003
By Shelley Murphy and Hiawatha Bray

Facial recognition technology designed to detect terrorists failed to match identities of a test group of employees at Logan International Airport in 38 percent of the cases, according to a study released yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Other technology that scanned the eyes of airport employees entering secure areas to verify their identities was rejected recently by Massachusetts Port Authority officials, partly because some employees found it too intrusive.

Yet, officials said other technologies tested recently at Logan have been more successful and will soon be adopted permanently, including the installation of infrared cameras to detect intruders around the perimeter of the airport, and hand-held computers that State Police can use to run background checks on people or to check license plates.

"The reason we do [testing] programs is to determine what's effective in a real world environment, to get them out of the lab and into the passenger terminal to see how they work," said Jose Juves, spokesman for Massport.

The highly touted facial recognition technology, which was tested at Logan between January and April 2002 and rejected last summer, failed to detect employees who volunteered in the program on 95 occasions when they passed through checkpoints at two terminals, according to a study that the ACLU obtained from Massport after requesting it under the Freedom of Information Act.

During the test, the photographs of 40 employees who volunteered for the program were scanned into a database. Cameras at two checkpoints at the airport relayed the images of everyone -- passengers and employees -- passing through to a computer, which compared them to the pictures stored in its memory. It used facial recognition technology to come up with a match.

The technology, provided by Viisage, in Littleton, and Identix, in Minnesota, successfully identifed employees 153 times, and falsely matched wrong people with the stored images three times, according to the study.

"It is making a match where none exists, so innocent people could well be targeted while at the same time it may not catch terrorists," said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. "It's dangerous to go down the path of high technology or newfangled ideas that not only won't keep us safe, but threaten our liberty."

USA Today reported the results of the facial recognition study at Logan yesterday.

The ACLU isn't alone in its doubts about the use of face scanning at airports. Viisage president and CEO Bernard Bailey, who was named head of the company after the Logan test was completed, said that he, too, is opposed to the idea, simply because the technology still isn't good enough.

"I don't think that's the best use of our technology," Bailey said. "The hype of this technology got way ahead of the capabilities of it."

Bailey said that the accuracy of airport facial scanning is hampered by the fact that scanning devices still have trouble coping with different lighting conditions and poses. Even changing the position of a person's head can cause an inaccurate identification.

Bailey said that the Viisage technology is better suited for tasks such as photographing people applying for visa applications or those who've been arrested, situations in which photos could be taken under precisely controlled conditions, with subjects required to face the camera in a consistent manner.

But Meir Kahtan, spokesman for Identix in Minnetonka, Minn., defended his company's FaceIt identification system, saying company statistics showed an 85.7 percent correct identification rate during the Logan test.

"To characterize it as a failure is disinformation," Kahtan said. "Given the results of the Logan test, the catch rate was sufficient to have stopped between 11 and 12 of . . . the 19 terrorists" on Sept. 11, 2001, said Kahtan.

State Police Major Thomas Robbins, who oversees Troop F at the airport, said officials were hopeful that facial recognition would help them spot and arrest terrorists if they came to the airport. But the new technology "was very labor-intensive . . . and quite frankly, it's not ready for prime time."

Both Robbins and Juves said officials had decided not to use iris scanning technology after testing the equipment earlier this year on airport employees.

"That was another example of weeding out products or technologies that don't work for an airport," said Juves, who added that some employees had an "aversion" to having their eyes scanned to verify their identities before they could enter certain areas. He said that Massport is considering whether fingerprint scanning would be more effective.

Tom Nutile, spokesman for Tier Technologies, the Walnut Creek, Calif., company that loaned the iris scanning equipment to Logan, said it's one of the least intrusive technologies for identification. "Many new technologies take some getting used to," he said.

Still, Massport officials and State Police have embraced other technologies since trying them out this year.

After testing six high-tech surveillance systems to guard the perimeter of Logan with infrared cameras, Juves said, Massport is poised to permanently install such a system at the airport. Massport will be seeking bids from vendors within the next week or so to install the heat-sensitive system that will guard the airport's perimeter from intruders.

Two video cameras mounted on Logan's control tower focus on sources of heat using infrared technology.

The cameras relay images to a computer at Massport's operations center and to handheld computers carried by State Police assigned to the airport.

There were other testing programs at the airport within the past year that have led to new security upgrades as well.

State Police currently use a scanning system that checks the authenticity of licenses and passports for employees and hope for its eventual use at passenger terminals.