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Thursday, 24 January, 2002, 17:08 GMT
Iceland places trust in face-scanning
Flight over Iceland
Icelanders rely on air travel to bring tourists
By the BBC's Emil Petrie

Iceland's main international airport believes it has found the way to allay fears about flight safety.

The Keflavik terminal is the first airport in the world to introduce face recognition technology.

Officials at Keflavik say the system will identify any hijackers on wanted lists, preventing them from ever getting on board a flight.

But there are doubts over the effectiveness of face-recognition technology in spotting wanted criminals.

Identifying suspects

The FaceIt computer software works with security cameras to quickly scan thousands of passengers as they make their way to boarding gates.

The system, designed by Visionics Corp, examines 80 facial characteristics to compare a person's unique "faceprint" to a database of suspected terrorists and criminals.

Had this system been installed at airports in North America last summer, it would have increased the chances of catching those criminals who hijacked the planes

Johann Benediktsson, Keflavik police commissioner
It only needs 12 of the features to match up and an alarm is sounded.

Visionics says it is so precise, that it cannot be fooled by disguises such as wigs or fake beards.

A number of the world's airports are now planning to introduce FaceIit.

It is just one example of what is known as biometrics, the process of identifying people by their unique characteristics, such as DNA, the retina or the iris.

But it has taken September's attacks on New York and Washington to force the issue.

Effectiveness unknown

The man who helped introduce face-recognition technology to Keflavik airport believes the system could have made a real difference had it been in use earlier.

Hot geysers in Iceland
Tourists attracted by Iceland's natural beauty
"In my opinion, had this system been installed at airports in North America last summer, it would have increased the chances of catching those criminals who hijacked the planes," said Keflavik airport police commissioner, Johann Benediktsson.

FaceIt technology was tried out at Keflavik before September of last year, mainly as a result of agreements that relaxed border controls between countries within the European Union and associated states.

The system was originally conceived to catch illegal immigrants, known drug dealers, runaways or children in custodial disputes.

Its effectiveness is still unknown. In the six months since its installation, FaceIt has yet to make a match with a wanted person.

A similar Visionics system which was tested in Florida also failed to produce any positive results. However, a system fitted in the UK is claimed to have "successfully identified a subject wanted by law enforcement authorities" - bit no details have been released.

A recent report by the America Civil Liberties Union showed that over a two-month period, the software failed to identify a single person photographed in the department's criminal database.

Instead, the software produced many false identifications, said the ACLU report. Florida police stopped using the technology in August, just two months into a 12-month trial.

Reassuring tourists

Icelanders, who rely on air travel for the tourists who sustain the economy, are taking no chances.

For Jonina Bjartmortz, a member of the foreign affairs committee in the Icelandic parliament, the system has become a sure way of reassuring nervous passengers.

"We are at the western most tip of Europe and a gateway to America. We only have one airline and we felt it was very necessary to invest in the technology," she said.

It seems to have worked. Flights coming and going from Keflavik airport are generally full and passengers appear happy.

See also:

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Tackling terror with technology
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