The Coming Face of Security

It's a devil's bargain: Facial-recognition systems might foil terrorists, but the price would be a further erosion of privacy

It was a plot right out of a Tom Clancy technothriller. Terrorists wreak havoc and try to kill thousands of people with sophisticated attacks using hijacked commercial airliners. When the plot is fiction, some tech-savvy hero saves the day. In real life, however, no techno miracles appeared to rescue the as-yet untold number of victims from the multipronged attack that, on Sept. 11, leveled three World Trade Center towers and set the Pentagon aflame.

Among the attitudes that may have been changed forever by the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil is the way Americans look at security. Once all the victims are counted, the death toll could be in the thousands -- possibly the largest loss of life on American soil since the Civil War. In the wake of such a disaster, analysts expect a rapid tightening of security in airports, office buildings, and at other readily-accessible public targets. That could go against the grain of the convenience-minded American public, which has traditionally been loath to endure hassles or slowdowns in the name of security.

Likewise, Americans' instinct may be to balk at the invasions of privacy that would result from the use of such tools as facial-recognition systems to identify and track passengers -- and more readily spot terrorists.

Compared with the fates of those who died in New York, at the Pentagon, and in the hijacked planes, however, those inconveniences seem like a reasonable tradeoff. "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," says Joseph Atick, CEO of facial recognition company Visionics. "In most cases, the agent at the gate doesn't even look at it."


  So what could this post-attack world look like for anyone trying to get on a flight? Expect more extensive scrutiny as airports and airlines hurriedly roll out the latest in high tech gadgets for sniffing bombs, says Ira Somerson, president of security firm Loss Management Consultants. "We need to screen luggage far more thoroughly than we do," says Somerson, adding: "We also need to screen passengers far more thoroughly." That may mean allowing only passengers inside terminals, he says. Somerson also advocates checking the background of every passenger who gets on a plane.

The technology for doing some of that isn't so far off. Several airlines already use automated ticketing procedures that rely on facial-recognition systems to check identities -- technology that Israel has used to pinpoint potential terrorists. They work by taking a digital image of a passenger's face and matching it to an electronic database. According to Atick, the technology can scan faces far more efficiently than a human being -- at a rate of more than a million a minute. That means it could both speed check-in procedures and make them more secure -- and give a big lift to security agents.

"Technology is much more powerful than a human operator," says Atick. "It's always sharp, it's always looking, and it gives more powerful tools to humans. That way, we don't have to put our security in the hands of people that may have stayed up the night before."


  Facial-recognition systems could also work in building security. Every employee at a company would need a facial ID on file -- and would have to be validated at each entry or at multiple entry points in a building. Of course, that would gum things up significantly for FedEx couriers and visitors. Ditto for airline passengers who haven't yet been entered into a database. "Overall, truly secure precautions could make travel 50% slower," says Somerson. "It might even impinge on size of the travel business."

Other precautions peculiar to the airline industry could inhibit the use of commercial airliners as weapons of mass destruction. One scenario might involve remote systems capable of taking control of a plane should things go awry, says Barnes McCormick, a professor of Aerospace Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. "You can fly an airplane with automatic control. Maybe when there is an indication that it has been taken over, a guy on the ground flips a switch," says McCormick. Such technology isn't yet installed in commercial jets. But the military already relies heavily on remote-control drone planes for surveillance. So using such technology on commercial flights isn't far-fetched.

Still, no technological marvel will make a difference without a sea change in the attitude of Americans. And thus far, even baby steps toward better security have faced major resistance from the public. Says Penn State's McCormack: "When airlines and airports have tried to put additional security on, they've gotten a lot of complaints from passengers."


  A new attitude will also be required on the part of the federal government, which takes little responsibility when it comes to protecting airports. Currently, airlines and local airport authorities fund most security efforts. And security posts are largely manned by minimum wage, unarmed contract employees. John Strauchs, president of threat assessment firm Systech, argues that since the U.S. government is generally the target of terrorist attacks, it should pay for and organize security measures. "There isn't anyone who has done airport security who isn't aware of the fact that no airport in the U.S. is safe against a strong use of force," Strauchs says. "Why are there minimum-wage security people working at airports? Why is there no armed response capability on site? Why don't we have the most capable people there?"

Such weaknesses aren't a huge surprise, considering that the perennially underfunded and understaffed Federal Aviation Administration is the primary oversight body. "My criticism is that the U.S. government is not addressing the solution correctly," says Strauchs. "It has focused all its money and effort on countermeasures, when it's the process that's broken."

To be sure, some fear that an overreaction to the disaster could saddle the country with stringent laws that later prove too invasive to personal privacy and freedom of movement. "This is a horrible tragedy and you wish it hadn't happened, but do you want to live in a fascist state to make sure it doesn't happen again?," asks Bruce Schneier, a computer-security expert and critic of facial-recognition systems.


  Furthermore, even the best security can't intercept every threat. A poignant case in point is the World Trade Center disaster. Since a 1993 car-bomb attack on the twin towers, no vehicles have been allowed to park in the garage below the building. Lobby security has, likewise, been tight. "You couldn't get in without lines, screenings, and preannouncements. They had 1,000% more security in the World Trade Center than any other building. They even had measures to prevent someone from bringing in an incendiary device in a brief case," says Somerson. But none of that could guard against a suicide attack by a hijacked jetliner.

The road to improved security will be a long one. It could take years to outfit airports, office buildings, and other installations with improved equipment -- and the cost for the technology and people to operate will run into the billions. Still, the events of Sept. 11 may galvanize politicians and a resistant public to accept the idea of a more security-conscious society. As the body count rises, the impetus can only grow stronger.

By Alex Salkever, with Jane Black and Olga Kharif in New York