High-Tech Human Identification Can Fight Terrorism


Sep 24, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on September 24, 2001.

There is no foolproof solution. But biometrics could become a powerful way to maintain security

As the nation begins to recover from this horrible tragedy, we need to dedicate our efforts to preventing any such terrorist acts in the future. While suicidal attacks can never be completely thwarted, we, as a nation, can take additional steps to counter them. We should explore many options.

Among them, we should examine the emerging technology of biometrics. While there is no easy foolproof technical fix to counter terrorism, biometrics might help make America a safer place.

Biometrics uses a person's physical characteristics or personal traits for automatic, nearly instantaneous human recognition. Digitized fingerprints, voiceprints, iris and retinal images, hand geometry and handwritten signature are all examples of characteristics that can identify us. While biometric technologies may seem exotic, their use is becoming increasingly common. Earlier this year, MIT Technology Review named biometrics as one of the "top 10 emerging technologies that will change the world."

There are several ways biometrics could be used to impede terrorism.

Currently many sensitive areas at airports are secured by badges and tokens. A person can swipe a pass and be given access to the runway, baggage loading areas and the airplanes themselves. Such measures are not wholly secure because badges and passes are easily forged, stolen and misplaced.

We can do better. For example, airline staff with a need to access sensitive areas of airports could be required to present a biometric like their iris to a sensor. From a foot away and in a matter of seconds, this device captures the person's iris image, converts it to a template,or computer readable format, and searches a database containing the templates of authorized personnel to attempt a match. A match confirms that the person is authorized to access a particular area.

This is not science fiction. Such a system is currently in place at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service uses an Immigration and Naturalization Service Passenger Accelerated Service System where 65,000 enrolled, vetted international travelers voluntarily use hand geometry to verify their identity at ports of entry. This time saving use enables INS officers to spend more time on problem cases.

We want to make certain that necessary travel documents are used only by the person to whom they were issued. Like badges and tokens, passports, visas and boarding passes can also be forged, misplaced or stolen. By placing an encrypted biometric measure on such a document, using a bar code, chip or magnetic strip, we make it harder for someone to adopt a false identity or create a forged travel document.

As these recent incidents make painfully clear, an American airport presents a prime venue for terrorists. Biometric facial recognition systems could help thwart future terrorist acts in such places. Specifically, surveillance cameras at an airport or a port of entry could scan people's faces to capture images. Computer algorithms could then convert these images to a template that could be instantly searched against a computerized database of suspected terrorists to potentially recognize a specific individual. A computer match would be confirmed by visual inspection by law enforcement officials.

While these facial recognition systems are not technically perfected, they are improving. And while civil libertarians might decry their use as some sort of an invasion of privacy, three quick points need to be made:

  • We do not have a constitutional right to privacy in the face we show in public.

  • We are all subject to heightened scrutiny at airports and ports of entry because they are sensitive facilities. For example, the law requires our persons and personal effects to undergo screening through metal detectors and the law forbids us to make jokes about threats on airport property.

  • The facial recognition system does not make any final determinations of a person's identity, but rather alerts the authorities to the need for additional diligence. The U.S. government has taken positive steps to encourage the use of biometrics. It is time to do more.

    Since 1992, the National Institute of Standard and Technologies, the national security community and other federal agencies have participated in the Biometric Consortium which serves as the U.S. government's focal point for biometric technologies. However, the Biometric Consortium operates on a very lean budget with limited staff.

    In the wake of the Khobar Towers terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency embarked on a $50 million initiative known as "Human ID at a Distance," a major component of which is facial recognition. DARPA's ambitious goal is to help develop biometric technologies, like facial recognition, that can be deployed to identify a known terrorist before he closes on his target.

    The nation's political leadership has also recognized the potential of biometric technologies. Public Law 106-246, passed last year, included a provision making the Army "the Executive Agent to lead, consolidate, and coordinate all biometrics information assurance programs of the Department of Defense." Soon thereafter, Pentagon leadership created a Biometrics Management Office to consolidate oversight and management of biometric technology for the Defense Department.

    The federal government should encourage continued research and development into biometrics by providing additional resources for this effort. Biometric Consortium efforts should be expanded with a senior administration official designated to head biometric efforts.

    There is no high-tech silver bullet to solve the terrorism problem. And it's very doubtful that biometrics could have prevented the recent tragedy. But to the extent we can make terrorism more difficult in the future, we achieve a safer America. Biometrics is one technology that can help us achieve this goal.

    John Woodward, a former CIA operations officer, is a senior policy analyst at RAND, where he works on biometric policy issues. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
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