Guest blog: Airports and facial recognition - Privacy, facilitation and security
14 March 2016 20:49 GMT

By Rob Sprecher, MorphoTrak

Adoption of biometric identification technology in airports seems to be a global trend. In particular, facial recognition is being used to improve the passenger experience and simplify the work of airline employees, security personnel, and customs and border protection agents. While debates over legal and ethical issues will continue, and are necessary to establish best practices and implementation guidelines, growth in the use of facial recognition in all forms of transportation seems a likely outcome of the current evolution in technology. A significant reason is that it will speed up critical security processes and increase public convenience.

Several facial recognition pilots have been successful in the U.S. at major locations such as Dulles International Airport, located outside Washington, D.C. In areas such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, where surveillance has been more widespread for years, the application of facial recognition is becoming routine. These successes show that facial recognition can be an effective tool and, perhaps just as importantly, demonstrate what targeted applications with specific focus can achieve.

As reported in the Washington Post on June 18, 2015, U.S. Customs and Border Protection tested a facial recognition system, using approximately 5,000 people with U.S. e-Passports at Dulles. The trial was carefully monitored by the agency and illustrated significant dynamics of possible use.

While legitimate concerns exist for constant and unlimited biometric surveillance, the Dulles evaluation had a specific focus: catching traveling imposters by comparing digitally stored passport images with those processed by the facial recognition software. Such imposters could be terrorists or criminals using another person’s passport.

At Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, the numbers are even higher than the U.S. pilots. Over a million passengers have been processed through the airport using facial recognition technology to verify their identities and speed them through customs and immigration control stations.

At Air New Zealand bag drop stations, facial cameras capture a person’s image and then connect the image to the passenger name record (PNR), confirming the passenger’s identity and linking the identity to his or her bags.

Still another example involves work at one of the world’s busiest airports, where installation of a new terminal will use facial recognition during check-in, immigration and boarding. Use of a single photo for each passenger will automate identity verification by airport staff at subsequent checkpoints. Significantly, this facial identification will be part of fast, seamless process throughout the new facility.

Still, concerns exist. Some opponents to facial recognition deployments attempt to argue that the promise of the technology is largely illusory because there is not now, and likely will never be, a database of terrorist faces. This assertion ignores the fact that thousands of images from regions with high levels of terrorist activity are posted on both open sources and the dark web.

Other worries may be even more debatable. Several critics of the technology note that facial recognition is not good enough for widespread use, especially in busy airports where the high quality images needed for facial recognition are difficult to obtain. What these critics fail to recognize is that the technology to capture quality images exists, but in most instances, the cameras are located for crowd control and not for facial capture and subsequent facial matching.

Advances in software and hardware over the past 10 years have brought facial recognition into public view as a reliable means of identification. Those advances are almost certain to continue.

Facial recognition is undergoing a quiet revolution that supports deployment in controlled environments for security and convenience purposes. For example, after extensive testing, face is the biometric token of choice at the largest airport in the world. Advances in software, such as rigorously tested facial algorithms, combined with advances in hardware, such as unique processing in operational environments, are proving valuable in the mission to assure that people are who they say they are. With identity validated as the baseline process in a traveler’s experience, the face biometric also becomes the enabler of a new era that is boarding pass-free and a win for the traveler, airport security and immigration authorities. It means airports can provide travelers with a smoother experience, and officials with more confidence that the travelers who booked travel are the same people boarding the planes, and that their documents are valid.

Robert Sprecher PMP is the Program Director for Face Recognition and Video Analytics for MorphoTrak.  Prior to this role, Mr. Sprecher was Practice Director for Unisys North American Public Safety and Justice Program.   He has more than 30 years of national and international law enforcement experience, in addition to technology development, architectural programming, and project management for federal, state, and local agencies.   He worked as a Deputy Sheriff, Detective, SWAT Commander and Department Director for large, urban public safety agencies. His received  his undergraduate degree from Regis University and attended the University of Colorado Graduate School of Public Affairs.

Mr. Sprecher has consulted with the Houston Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office; the Atlanta Department of Corrections, and the New York Police Department.  His international experience includes work for Her Majesty’s Prison Service in England, the Hong Kong Police Department, and the Singapore Central Narcotics Bureau and Prison Service.

Mr. Sprecher has been assigned to FBI and DEA task forces and was deputized as a United States Marshal in support of counterterrorism and security assignments. Mr. Sprecher supported the US DHS, TSA and many state and local law enforcement agencies.