Because each person's fingerprints are unique, law enforcement officials have long used fingerprints to identify criminals. But modern science offers a host of more effective means of identification. In the wake of last week's terrorist attacks, the new technologies are getting much attention.
The configuration of a face, the iris of the human eye, speech patterns - all these, it turns out, are unique and therefore identifying characteristics. The science of using computer technology to measure those physical or behavioral traits is known as "biometrics."
Richard Norton, Executive Director of the trade association for U.S. biometrics companies, says the tiny industry's growth has been spectacular. "As recently as 1995 we were selling only maybe $20 million worth of goods and services," he said. "This year we expect to sell at least $170 million and we project by the year 2010 it should be a $3 billion industry at this rate."
That's because these ways of identifying people have been used for everything from arresting criminals to establishing identities for credit checks and access to facilities.
Joseph Atick, whose company, Visionics, specializes in face recognition, says the firm's software was used by the Mexican government in July's elections to prevent people from voting more than once. Face recognition technology is easy to use, he says, because you can photograph people in crowds without their knowing it. "It's also used in London: 300 cameras [are] constantly scanning the crowds and alerting the police when dangerous criminals are actually among crowds," he said. "It's also used at Iceland airport to look for individuals they do not want to have enter the country. Dozens of police departments in the United States use the technology to determine who somebody is when they arrest them."
Mr. Atick says intelligence communities around the world have been building data bases of criminals and terrorists. Had face recognition technology been in place at the U.S.-Canadian border, he says, several of the terrorists in last weeks' bombings would have never been able to enter the United States. "Second, a surveillance system at an airport in the United States would have been on the lookout and scanned members of the crowd as they were boarding planes and would have done a match and alerted security," said Joseph Atick.
Visionics earned $30 million last year, but Mr. Atick expects revenues to multiply shortly. Since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, he says, Visionics has received more than 100 telephone calls a day from people around the world seeking its services.