Face scanners such as these in use at Manchester airport could help prevent people from entering the UK illegally.

It seems as though face recognition scanners are finally getting a fixture-hold as part of airport security. London’s Heathrow airport has announced that it will begin using face recognition as a way to limit passengers that take advantage of their international flight setup. The move is just one of many that show England is serious about stepping up security at its borders.

The face scans are meant to ensure that the person given a boarding pass is the same person that uses it. This has actually been a problem at Heathrow. The international terminals are 1 and 5, but these terminals also service domestic flights. What some people have been doing to gain illegal access to England is to buy a ticket from, say, Miami, meet up with an accomplice in the departure lounge that is shared by both international and domestic passengers, and swap their ticket for a domestic one to, say, Glasgow. People connecting on domestic flights don’t have to go through customs. Come this September when the face scanners are online, international passengers on layover at Heathrow will be required to have a face scan upon receiving their boarding pass and then again upon leaving the departure lounge. It’ll be a lot harder for illegals to pull the switcheroo.

The face recognition technology comes from biometrics specialist Aurora. Their Aurora Image Recognition (AIR) system takes pictures with an infrared flash and can operate in both bright and low light conditions. The person needs to stand within three feet of the camera for an accurate identification, which comes in about 4.7 seconds (including time to properly position to passenger). AIR will be supported by a Passenger Authentication Scanning System (PASS) provided by Atkins. PASS is already in use at Heathrow and Gatwick airports to automatically link a person’s ID to their online checkin, airline data and departure lounge systems into “one seamless ‘gate-to-gate’ solution.”

Joining the biometrics technology of AIR with the information accessing PASS is just the latest example of how England is using technology to streamline checkpoint processes. In compliance with the US Department of Homeland Security, the UK, along with other countries like Australia and New Zealand, inserted microchips into their passports containing a biometric facial image of passport holders. These e-Passports are more difficult to counterfeit and were made a necessity in the US’s new era of waived visa requirements for select countries. UK airports capitalized on the technology by using it as an added check measure: making sure the holder’s face matched the face on the chip. Heathrow and Gatwick only recently acquired the e-Passport gates, but they were the last of the major airports in the UK to do so. Right now there are 15 terminals in the UK with e-Passport gates.

Which one's which? It's not as easy as it looks for some face scanners.

For a country that wants to strengthen its borders, a logical spinoff to e-Passport is a database against which to check for criminals or terrorists who are trying to enter your country. e-Borders is such a system. e-Borders monitoring began in mid-2009. As of this past April, checks against crime, immigration, and terrorism has led to 2,800 arrests. Last year alone it nabbed people in connection with 18 murders, 27 rapes, 29 sex offences, and 25 violent crimes. e-Borders not only checks those who travel by plane but also those who travel by boat or plane. And the passenger need not even be in the UK. Checks are run on plane, boat, and train passengers at their disembarkation points en rout to the UK. Sound like a lot of screening? At the start of 2010 e-Borders was tracking half of all UK travelers. The government aims to be tracking 100 percent of all travelers by March of 2014.

The UK isn’t the only country rapidly adopting face recognition technologies to strengthen its borders. Much touted as the future of security following the September 11 attacks, several states in the US implemented different strategies involving face recognition scanning. They didn’t live up to the hype, however. Logan airport in Boston, where 10 of the 19 9/11 terrorists boarded their planes, ran a trial with face scanners in 2002. The system correctly detected 153 volunteer “terrorists,” but failed to detect 96 of them. That same year Palm Beach airport ran its own face recognition trial, and got similar results, failing to detect its targets more than half of the time. But these earlier systems were trying to pull a Minority Report-style scan as people passed in front of security cameras. Plucking identities from video is a biometrics task much more onerous than identifying a stationary, properly positioned person three feet away. Perhaps more troublesome for UK officials is the 2009 failure at Manchester airport. In what is possibly an obvious comparison test for some, the Manchester scanners couldn’t “tell the difference between Osama bin Laden and Winona Ryder.” The scanners at Manchester were provided by a different company but work in the same way that Aurora’s scanners work. The long lines that the indecisive scanners caused prompted officials to temporarily suspend their use earlier this year. Let’s hope that the scanners at Heathrow, an airport that saw 65 million travelers in 2010, work much better.

Despite their imperfections, biometrics-based technologies will continue to be sought after to bolster airport security across the world, make policing easier, billboards more effective, and stalking on Facebook more efficient. Privacy issues are already being raised by groups like the ACLU. But until face recognition technology is proven to be accurate and efficient – that is, if the queues at Heathrow end up growing more obscene than they already are (use ropes people!), it’ll be a little while before the ACLU has anything to worry about.

[image credits: DailyMail and the Telegraph]
image 1: Manchester
image 2: Winona and Bin Ladin

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.