NEC VP sees critical period of public facial recognition deployments and debate over next 24 months

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NEC is one of the few companies among the Fortune Global 500 that are leaders in biometric technology. It has been providing biometrics to law enforcement in the U.S. for over a generation, and has been offering its technology to federal agencies for the last couple of years. The company also scored the highest accuracy in annual testing of facial recognition algorithms by NIST for 9 out of the last 10 years.

NEC Vice President of Federal Operations Benji Hutchinson is a veteran of the biometrics industry, having worked previously for Morpho and deployed biometric systems for the Department of State while with Harris Corporation. He told Biometric Update that NEC considers its facial recognition technology to currently have three main use cases; border security, homeland defense, and frictionless travel.

All three are growing, and there is some overlap, but the latter is showing immediate growth prospects with the rollout of the Biometric Entry/Exit program, and efforts to involve the private sector to transform the overall airport experience. With the Department of Homeland Security as its biggest customer for biometrics, NEC is poised to take advantage of that growth.

“One of the good things that Customs and Border Protection has done is they’ve really stepped up their game and their ability to market the effectiveness of the technology,” Hutchinson states.

The technology has only become marketable in the past few years, Hutchinson says, even though biometrics in airports were first mandated by the 9/11 Commission report, due to advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“For about a decade or more the aviation industry considered those mandates, which were unfunded, to be too expensive,” he explains. “A lot of different numbers were thrown around on capital hill, and they were in the billions of dollars. That’s just not the case anymore. Nowadays the biometric technology, specifically face recognition, is more stable, it’s much cheaper, its much more high-performing, and it’s a lot more accurate. All of these factors turned into a perfect storm, if you will, where decreasing prices, increasing market availability, high performance and high accuracy led to the opportunity that CBP is seizing to implement pilots in high-volume, high-traffic airports in the United States.”

Now that the pilots have demonstrated the technology’s viability for traveller identification to airlines and airports, Hutchinson is confidant that investment will increase rapidly. NEC’s biometric technology is already used in about 10 airports, and the company expects to be involved in more deployments in the near future.

“Not only is it cool, it works well, and folks in general don’t mind it. It also saves them money, and it increases efficiency,” Hutchinson argues. “When you get to a private sector company and you start to put a value proposition like that in front of them, it really resonates.”

The decrease in cost and the improvement in performance have come about due to the increased involvement of two major sectors of the American economy. One is the federal government, particularly the Department of Defense, which poured billions in investment into public sector uses of biometrics during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. New entrants were attracted to the space, and other agencies, notably the Departments of Homeland Services and State, began to realize that new biometric technologies could solve problems for them, Hutchinson recounts.

Around this time, Hutchinson says, “the West coast woke up,” and the skills and investment capital associated with Silicon Valley startups and North-Western tech giants were applied to the industry. New entrants moved into biometrics, and many biometrics companies opened locations there.

Hutchinson compares the recent period of biometric development to the cold war era, when public investment in nuclear technology not only drove the original project forward, but also spurred unforeseen advances and inventions, such as the microwave. Now, the disruptive influence of mobile devices and cloud computing are enabling further expansion of biometrics to new use cases.

This expansion puts pressure on large multi-nationals like NEC to participate in the development of the standards that will enable interoperability. Hutchinson spent part of his early career with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and has participated in the ISO joint technical committee (ISO/IEC JTC1), and stresses the need for the inertia that standards create.

NEC is also a member of IATA, which is working with the WTTC to establish standards that enable the deployment of biometrics throughout the travel industry. IATA has a subcommittee working on reducing the number of steps in the air travel process with technologies like automation and biometrics. NEC also sends subject-matter experts (SMEs) and engineers to different organizations, and has representatives at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and International Development Bank meetings.

At each of the groups NEC participates in, there is consensus that biometrics are part of the mix of advanced technology that must be used to ensure the capacity and security of high-throughput systems in crowded areas. Hutchinson predicts that widespread biometric deployment throughout the aviation and entertainment spaces will take place over next year or two.

Airport deployments will grow from one or several gates to whole terminals, and Hutchinson expects many major deployments elsewhere over the next 24 months, as sporting events, amusement parks, and other venues with long lineups attempt to shorten them as much as possible. Deployments will start with access control and opt-in programs for preferred and regular customers, and spread out from there, he says.

“As they begin to integrate it into their back of house systems, it will become more seamless and effortless, and then folks will become more habituated, more comfortable with it, and they’ll want to take advantage of the value it offers.”

The rapid growth of biometric technology in public spaces puts an onus on stakeholders to educate the public about who is collecting data, and how it is being used. The public is increasingly aware of and concerned about privacy risks, so Hutchinson cautions that that education is critical to allow the public to be able to separate fact from fiction in social dialogue, and ultimately become comfortable with the technology.

Like many in the industry, Hutchinson is worried that misconceptions have sidetracked the social dialogue.

“Some of the debate has led to a place where they want to put hyper-regulation on one particular part of the technology – facial recognition,” he says. “That seems like a heavy-handed measure. It seems like its overkill.”

If public debate can be focused on balancing real risks and benefits, then Hutchinson thinks effective policies can be built based on existing legal foundations.

“It is a little bit of a fallacy in the United States to say that we do not have any legal framework for privacy; we do. We have the Privacy Act, there’s the Government Act, there are a number of pieces of legislation that have been on the books for 50 years.”

The rules simply need to be updated to apply them to the digital realm, but that means debate needs to be held around how much legislation or regulation is needed, and what it should be focussed on. If the companies providing the technology do their part, Hutchinson says, the facial recognition deployments like the 2020 Olympics will be a step toward bringing the technology’s benefits into everyday public life.

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