Terror attacks create interest and concern about facial recognition tech

March 28, 2016 - 

According to industry experts, terrorist attacks in Brussels will impact the development and deployment of facial recognition technology. Three coordinated bombings occurred last week in the Belgian capital: two at Brussels Airport and one at Maalbeek metro station in Brussels. In these attacks, at least 31 victims and three suicide bombers were killed, and over 300 people were injured. Another bomb was found during a search of the airport.

The use of terror tactics in open spaces is projected to increase with the proliferation of terrorist groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Continued attacks in public spaces, including those that also impacted Paris last year, might encourage both U.S. and European lawmakers and border security professionals to encourage the collection of more biometric data from travellers, along with the expansion of terrorist biometric databases.

The use of facial recognition in public spaces however does present challenges. According to a recent TechTarget report, a facial recognition system must have access to an existing database with images of the facial features of potential perpetrators, along with sensors that could obtain usable images of “persons of interest” approaching protected areas. The system would also need the capacity to identify those persons of interest in real-time and alert security forces to respond rapidly.

While this type of scenario is challenging in public spaces such as an airport’s passenger reception area or rail station, the U.S. government is actively working on pilot projects to test the workability of such systems. According to a recent DefenseOne report, the U.S. military tested a high-speed, multi-resolution camera in 2014 developed by General Electric (GE), capable of capturing a facial image, even at an angle. The system was designed to identify someone in a moving vehicle headed toward a military base, but could be adapted and deployed on city streets or on roads leading airports.

The reality of continued terrorist threats will mean that governments will continue to expand and experiment with ways to expand their biometric toolkit to identify terrorists and interdict terrorist acts. Industry analysts however believe that the technology has a long way to go before it becomes fully functional at countering a terror attack.

Avivah Litan, a Gartner analyst who specializes in big data analytics for cybersecurity, told TechTarget she believes it would be much harder for terrorists to evade detection if there were “biometric footprints” left behind, but she does not think the technology, or existing databases, currently have the capacity to achieve detection. She told TechTarget: real-time facial recognition and voice, fingerprint and iris scanning amount to little if the data doesn’t match to a suspect in a database.

In the same article, Heidi Shey, a senior data security analyst at Forrester Research, noted that many challenges also exist for law enforcement concerning the capture of terrorist biometrics without the compromise of citizen privacy.

She told TechTarget: “Biometrics technology is not a panacea for national security and anti-terrorism efforts. I’d be concerned with overreliance on this and other technologies at the expense of citizen privacy and focus on processes for coordination and cooperation between law enforcement agencies. Also, as with any technology, the technology itself is not inherently good or bad, it’s how we use it – or abuse it. There is plenty of room for abuse here.”

Ultimately, despite critical security concerns, the analysts note that governments must still strongly weigh decisions surrounding privacy, oversight, accountability, and acceptable risk before adopting such surveillance technologies.

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at BiometricUpdate.com and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.