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FBI techs shy away from facial recognition

Spends 40 years losing face

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A senior FBI technologist declared last month that after decades of evaluation, the agency sees no point in facial recognition.

Speaking at last month's Biometrics 2009 conference in London, James A Loudermilk II, a senior level technologist at the FBI, outlined the agency's future biometrics' strategy.

He said that 18,000 law enforcement agencies contribute fingerprints and DNA samples to the FBI’s databases and, at their peak, they submit 200,000+ identity verification queries a day. It’s a big operation, and it’s only going to grow, he said.

Under the Next Generation Identification initiative, an irisprint database is likely to be added to the existing fingerprint and DNA databases.

Fingerprints are likely to be amplified with friction prints of other ridges, probably palmprints and maybe footprints. Voiceprints are also being evaluated. Anything that can feasibly increase public safety.

Loudermilk said his aim was to get the current turnaround time for laboratory staff from DNA sample to profile down from 8 to 10 hours to 1. He said the technology was there already, it was a question of feeding it down the levels of law enforcement to every precinct booking station. Once the agency gets turnaround time to an hour, then perhaps the idea of sampling an entire planeload of passengers starts to look feasible.

What will be missing from this mix, however, is facial recognition.

Facial recognition would be the killer application of biometrics, Loudermilk told the hundreds of conference delegates, and the FBI would dearly love to be able to use facial recognition in its fight against crime.

But it can’t. The algorithms just don’t exist to deliver the highly reliable verification required.

This is even though the FBI has been evaluating facial recognition technology since 1963, he said. It didn’t invest then. It’s not investing now.

Despite the FBI's rubbishing of the technology, delegates from other policing agencies and vendors queued up to declare their intention to introduce facial recognition or claim the technology worked.

These included Alex Lahood of the UK Border Agency. He reiterated former Home Sec John Reid's pledge to check the identity of everyone entering and leaving the UK by 2013. When asked how, he said, probably face recognition and fingerprints.

Clearly, the FBI's word is not good enough for HM government. ®

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