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In essence, all the elements needed to create a wide-scale security system based on face recognition are already available. But to implement such a system could be a bureaucratic nightmare, requiring the cooperation of multiple federal and local authorities. Each agency would have to allow access to its photo databases from different security checkpoints throughout the country. “That’s going to require some federal decisions on how that information is shared,” says Norton. “That process is under way. These issues are being discussed at the relevant agencies.”

Federal officials could not be reached for comment on the status of these discussions. But face recognition was one of a number of new security measures that the U.S. Department of Transportation explored after the attacks. In late September, Visionics CEO Joseph Atick demonstrated his company’s technology to an emergency committee set up by the department. In its final report, the committee recommended that airports implement biometric technologies, though it did not specify which ones. But according to committee member Charles Barclay, president of the American Association of Airport Executives, “Face recognition definitely has a future in airport security and air transportation.” In fact, officials in the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration have floated the idea of using Washington’s Reagan National Airport as a test site for the first installations, says Barclay.

Airport security, however, could be just one part of a wider antiterrorism system using face recognition. The technology could potentially be employed at government buildings, embassies, border crossings and large public events.

In his briefing to the special transportation committee, Atick went so far as to outline what he refers to as a four-layer “national shield.” The first layer would use face recognition as part of the visa application process, checking each applicant’s photo against databases of known and suspected terrorists. “This is to keep terrorists at home,” Atick says. “Don’t bring them into the United States by offering them visas.” The Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department could also prevent some forms of identify fraud by making sure an individual doesn’t apply for a visa multiple times under different names. Three other layers of security would be created by installing face recognition technology at airport ticket counters, metal detectors and boarding gates, all linked to the same databases. This setup would ensure, according to Atick, that no suspected terrorist obtains a boarding pass, and that legitimately obtained boarding passes don’t fall into terrorists’ hands.

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