Looking out for terrorists

Nov. 1, 2001
This column is being written exactly two weeks after the horrifying terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. Federal and state government authorities are already in the throes of making significant changes to the ways we interact with each other and with businesses and government organizations.

This column is being written exactly two weeks after the horrifying terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. Federal and state government authorities are already in the throes of making significant changes to the ways we interact with each other and with businesses and government organizations. Many of these changes will affect our daily lives, particularly for travel by air and other means. Life, it seems, will never be the same again in a country where personal freedom is protected by a Constitution and a Bill of Rights for all the people. But our sense of security has been smashed by hijacking fanatics using civilian airplanes as deadly weapons. Does advanced technology have the ability to restore some of the reassuring security of everyday living? How can technology thwart terrorism?

In the past, much has been made of the potential of biometrics for beefing up airport security (see, for example, "Personal Identifiers of the Future," by Stephen J. Matthews, Laser Focus World, November 1998). Biometrics is the measurement of a personal biological characteristic, such as a fingerprint, long a staple of police department records. Other biometric systems use hand geometry, facial recognition, or the scanning of the iris patterns in an eye. Employed correctly, biometric systems have the capability of being considerably more effective than the here-to-fore casual review of a driver's license photo or a passport picture by travel personnel.

But even the most advanced biometric technology does not provide 100% accuracy. Such systems can reject authorized users, fail to identify known users and fail to reject people posing as authorized users. The enthusiasm of biometrics advocates "may convey the inaccurate impression that biometrics, standing alone, are a panacea that will solve all international security problems," notes the International Biometric Industry Association (IBIA; Washington, DC; www.ibia.org). In fact, a recent report published by the US Department of Transportation found that most airport security violations were caused by airport and airline employees. The best technology in the world will not completely compensate for the human factor.

Many biometric systems are intended for verification, such as identifying airport personnel, where the population to be controlled is relatively small. The combination of, say, a hand-geometry system and a swipe card, possibly with details stored on the card, can provide a high degree of reliable verification. By contrast, a system for identifying the many millions of passengers using US airlines every year would not only require a huge database but would also need standardized equipment at airports all across the country. International travel would pose even more extensive problems. And, travelers would have to "enroll" in the system by willingly submitting to a close-up facial scan or an iris scan before initiating travel.

A recent report by New York-based consultants, International Biometric Group (IBG), suggests that airport surveillance technology, notably facial-scan, would not have been effective in identifying the terrorists responsible for the acts of Sept. 11. The report (After the Terrorist Attacks, available at www.biometric-group.com) points out that the effectiveness of facial-scan systems is hampered by the use of typically low-resolution video cameras, widely differing environmental factors, and changes in facial appearance over time. "As currently deployed, (facial-scan technology) cannot be relied upon to identify known or suspected terrorists," claims the IBG report.

Another important issue that could inhibit the widespread deployment of biometric systems is the matter of possible invasion of personal privacy. Biometric systems could be used by police authorities or legitimate businesses to track an individual's travel usage. They could even be used to catch scofflaws with substantial unpaid parking tickets. It's likely that we'll have to trade off some loss of privacy for increased security. That may be a small price that we just have to pay.

Finally, it's important to note that, no matter how effective the technology, security is ultimately determined by the correct engineering and proper use of such systems. We will inevitably be dependent on the skills and vigilance of the personnel who operate the security systems. And, technology alone will not defeat the threat of terrorism. In my view, that's up to all of us.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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