November 20 , 2001

ACLU Challenges Face Scanning at California Airport

Elinor Mills Abreu

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) -- As airports around the country scramble to install new security measures after the Sept. 11 attacks, a leading civil rights group is warning that passengers are now in danger of machines mistaking them for terrorists.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday asked an airport in northern California pioneering the use of facial recognition technology to stop scanning passenger faces in a hunt for possible terrorists.

Fresno's Yosemite Airport is conducting a trial run of technology comparing facial features with those in a database of photographs supplied by the FBI and Department of Justice web sites.

Airport spokeswoman Patti Miller said ``The system seems to be working exceedingly well'' and will continue to be used. She added that there have only been two false positive results since the system was installed Oct. 26.

``It has not identified any major terrorists, which is not surprising since we're not LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) or Miami,'' Miller added.

The ACLU complains that such use of the technology won't catch criminals and will only inconvenience innocent people and give airport security personnel a false sense of security.

``It will result in bad guys getting a free pass onto the airplane and a lot of good people getting hassled,'' said Barry Steinhardt, ACLU national associate director.

He added, ``There is no photographic database of terrorists but even if there were, the technology is no more than ... a coin toss. They're getting the illusion of security and security personnel are letting their guard down. The real scandal here is when a terrorist gets on the plane airport, officials will get fired and the (technology) company's stock price will go down.''

The ACLU is also asking airports in Boston, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; and Oakland, California to stop using facial recognition technology, Steinhardt said, adding, ``We're not at the lawsuit stage yet.''


Experts say facial recognition technology is best used for applications such as verifying employee access to buildings where the identity of an individual is confirmed, rather than trying to match up a random face from a database of hundreds or thousands of images.

Facial recognition technology isn't as accurate as other types of biometrics because people can easily change their appearance with beards, sunglasses, weight gain or loss and by natural aging, Steinhardt said.

However, Miller said the airport welcomes any technology that can offer additional security, even if it's not perfect. ``It does not delay passengers or inhibit traffic whatsoever and yet it is an added level of security,'' she said.

The technology is provided by Pelco Inc., which is located across the street from the airport. Pelco asked the airport if it could test the system, Miller said.

About 2,000 passengers a day pass through the airport's gates, not including crew and airport workers, she said.

Facial recognition technology first created a controversy when it was revealed that law enforcement officials used it during last year's Super Bowl game in Tampa, Florida. Since the hijacking attacks of Sept. 11, more government officials and companies have been looking at the technology.

Facial scanning technology is used in Iceland's Keflavik airport, among other airports. Meanwhile, airports in London, Canada and the United States use iris and hand scanning technologies, mostly to control employee access to building areas.

Copyright 2001, Reuters. All rights reserved.

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