Use tech vs. terror, but protect privacy

September 27, 2001|By David Callahan

NEW YORK -- Much attention now is focused on improving airport security and bolstering the ability of law enforcement agencies to track potential terrorists on American soil.

New biometric technologies that recognize faces, retinas, voices and other human characteristics can be powerful weapons in the struggle against terrorism. But these technologies have limitations and can undermine Americans' privacy and civil liberties.

Two questions have burned since Sept. 11: How could a sizable cabal of foreign terrorists, including men wanted by the FBI, operate undetected in the United States for more than a year? And how could they get onto four different jetliners in a single morning?

Answers are likely to dribble out over the months as investigators piece together the most monstrous crime in American history. Clearly, though, existing systems for verifying the backgrounds and identities of airline passengers are grossly inadequate, as is the ability of law enforcement to find and apprehend wanted persons on U.S. soil.

Biometric technologies can address these problems.

Terrorists or other criminals can easily get onto domestic flights under assumed names and carrying fake IDs. Technology that scans faces, fingerprints, palms or retinas could make this far more difficult by helping determine the true identity of all passengers.

Face recognition technology, which works by identifying key points in the structure of a face, is particularly powerful in that it can match faces captured on video with faces in a file of photos or mug shots.

In contrast, scans of fingers, palms or eyes are useful only if the person being identified previously had been arrested or otherwise compelled to submit biometric information to law enforcement databases.

Face recognition also has the advantage of being passive in that it does not require someone to stop and subject a feature of their body to an electronic biometric scan. Such systems also could be deployed on streets and highways to help law enforcement officials apprehend wanted criminals.

Tampa, Fla., became the first U.S. city to deploy a face recognition surveillance system in a public area early this year. The move triggered protests by citizens who argued that the city was invading their privacy by recording and analyzing their biometric data without permission.

In Maine, there has been much controversy about a measure that requires all schoolteachers to be fingerprinted.

State laws requiring electronic fingerprinting when applying for driver's licenses also have come under fire.

Across the United States, there has been growing debate about how to regulate the collection and use of biometric databases that private businesses compile of their employees for security purposes.

It's not clear how much privacy Americans will sacrifice for greater security. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the New Jersey-based Visionics Corp., which developed the face recognition system used in Tampa, reported that it has received thousands of inquiries about its product.

Many Americans probably would accept biometric technology in airports, since they are already accustomed to having their privacy compromised in this environment for the sake of security. But deploying such surveillance more widely, especially in public places, will remain controversial for good reason.

In George Orwell's 1984, people are watched constantly by cameras that know their names and whereabouts. Technology has finally put this future within reach. Even if new video surveillance networks and expanded databases of biometric information are developed with the best of intentions, the possibility for abuse of these systems is real.

This country has witnessed repeated instances in which federal and local law enforcement agencies have violated the civil liberties of Americans. Even in a time of growing insecurity -- indeed, especially in such a time -- we must be careful about giving up the liberty and privacy that have historically been a cornerstone of the American way of life.

David Callahan, author of Unwinnable Wars (Hill and Wang, 1998), is research director at Demos, a public-policy organization in New York City.

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