MARY REICHARD, HOST: First up, the uniqueness of the human face. It is as unique to you as your fingerprint, not to mention a lot easier to pick out of a crowd. And because pictures of us are easy to take and already exist in online databases, it’s become an important tool for law enforcement.
NICK EICHER, HOST: Last month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials announced a new program: Orlando International Airport will become the first in the country to use facial recognition technology to process all arriving and departing international travelers.
REICHARD: WORLD Radio technology reporter Michael Cochrane is here now to tell us more about facial recognition technology – what it is and how it’s being used.
Michael, these recent stories seem to suggest that facial recognition technology has gone mainstream. Why now?
MICHAEL COCHRANE, REPORTER: Huge strides in the use of artificial intelligence, or AI, have been made in just the last couple of years. Algorithms called Artificial Neural Networks can scan a photo or a video image of a face and instantly match it to an image contained in a database of faces with an accuracy as good or better than a human. U.S. military and intelligence agencies have been using it for years in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but the hardware and software is becoming less expensive and more widespread, so lots of police forces around the country have started using it.
REICHARD: Let’s talk about that law enforcement application first. I know last month law enforcement officers in Maryland used facial recognition technology to identify the suspect in the shootings at the Annapolis Capital Gazette. How did did that work?
COCHRANE: The police in Maryland initially tried fingerprint identification but ran into a snag. So they took a photo of the suspect and ran it through the Maryland Image Repository System, or MIRS, which contains millions of images taken from driver’s licenses and mugshots. As with many facial recognition systems, MIRS scans specific facial dimensions—such as the width of the nose or the shape of the ear. Then it compares those to the millions of images in the database. The search quickly came up with a match.
REICHARD: How frequently do authorities use the MIRS database?
COCHRANE: The Baltimore Sun reported that as many as 6,000 to 7,000 law enforcement officers in the state have access to that database—and they accessed that system nearly 200 times in one week.
REICHARD: With that kind of access, doesn’t such a system open itself up for abuse?
COCHRANE: That’s true. In 2016, the ACLU accused the state of Maryland of using MIRS without a warrant to identify people attending protests following the death of Freddie Gray. Georgetown Law School’s Center on Privacy and Technology says that the MIRS system has never been audited.
REICHARD: Yeah, with video surveillance cameras everywhere these days, it’s not hard to imagine how that kind of technology could potentially be misused.
COCHRANE: Yes. Many digital privacy advocates argue that people whose photos are in a driver’s license database, for example, didn’t consent to be part of a criminal search every time the police are looking for a subject. They say that civil photographs shouldn’t be subject to search in criminal investigations. However, in the Capital Gazette shooting case, experts noted that police were simply using the technology to confirm the identity of a suspect they already had in custody. They weren’t trying to find a criminal in a big database of people.
REICHARD: Ah, that’s an important distinction. Tell us about how Customs and Border Protection is using facial recognition technology.
COCHRANE: Sure. CBP conducted pilot programs and tests at other airports over the last couple of years that involved only a limited number of gates or specific flights. In Orlando, CBP will now apply facial recognition to all international travelers—both departing and arriving. For departing flights, every passenger—once they arrive at the gate—has to stand for a photo that will be checked against any existing passport or visa photos that may be on file. Once the photo is matched, the traveler is free to board the flight without showing any other paperwork.
REICHARD: So, unlike the law enforcement system, this software isn’t checking against a huge database of photos?
COCHRANE: No. It’s all based on the flight manifest—the list of passengers on the flight. If there are, say, 300 people on the flight, the CBP assembles in advance all the photos available of those passengers. There may be about 1,500 photos given that some people have multiple photos in the system. If the scanned photo matches one in that small database, the passenger can proceed to the plane. If not, then the officers will try another photo and if that doesn’t work, they’ll try alternate methods.
REICHARD: What’s the reaction from passengers who’ve been through the system so far?
COCHRANE: Pretty positive. Orlando TV station WESH reported passengers remarking that it was a much smoother process. And the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority claims tests show boarding times improved by as much as 15 minutes.
REICHARD: OK. Is this application of facial recognition technology likely to face any legal challenges?
COCHRANE: I don’t think so. This rollout at Orlando International Airport is the culmination of a years-long process by the Department of Homeland Security and CBP to implement a key recommendation from the 2004 congressionally mandated 9-11 Commission report. That report recommended that a biometric entry-exit screening system be established that also speeds qualified travelers. In one of his travel executive orders last year, President Trump called for expedited completion of such a biometric identification system.
REICHARD: And so facial recognition technology was the answer?
COCHRANE: Yes, because the timing was right. Over the years, CBP had tried using other biometrics such as fingerprint and iris scans, but it turns out that facial recognition technology was the way to go. Not only had the technology matured to the point where it was quicker and easier to implement than other technologies, it was intuitive for people. After all, everyone knows how to stand in front of a camera!
REICHARD: Some of us more awkwardly than others! Michael Cochrane is WORLD’S science and technology correspondent. Thank you, Michael!
COCHRANE: You’re very welcome, Mary.