Airport Security Advances Clash With Privacy Issues

Airport Security Advances Clash With Privacy Issues

By RON NIXON MAY 8, 2015

BOSTON — At a mock airport in an underground laboratory here at Northeastern University, students pretending to be passengers head through a security exit in the right direction, while a young man enters going the wrong way. On a nearby computer screen, a newly developed video surveillance software program flags the wayward person and sounds an alarm.

In a lab across the street, researchers are developing a new way to detect explosives using radar.

Just down the hall, a professor and a team of students are working on a scanning system that they hope will speed up security lines. The system uses machines installed in walls or other places to scan passengers as they walk past instead of having them walk individually into a conventional scanning machine.

“The goal is to have a system that provides better scanning of individuals going through security, while at the same time making it more convenient,” said Jose Martinez Lorenzo, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, who is directing the project.

But the ambitious research in the name of passenger safety and easing air travel delays is colliding with pressure to protect privacy and to reduce federal spending.

“As we adopt new technologies to meet the constantly changing needs of our aviation infrastructure in a budget-constrained environment, these technologies must be proven to be effective, protect civil liberties, and properly balance security with passenger privacy,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and ranking member on the Committee on Homeland Security.

Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that advances in technology could actually help solve the budget issues.

“These things are expensive, but it’s cheaper than paying a person to stand there,” he said. “You don’t have to pay health care benefits to a robot. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it as long as there are controls in place so things are not abused and they don’t turn over the surveillance totally to a software program.”

The video surveillance software was developed by Octavia Camps and Mario Sznaier, both engineering professors, to detect passengers going the wrong way through exits, and it has been tested since April 2014 at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. The software is used at one exit, which handles 50,000 people a week, and has a 99 percent detection rate with only five false alarms a week, according to local officials.

The Northeastern researchers are developing additional uses for the video surveillance systems, including detection of suspicious packages left unattended and software that would recognize “coordinated activities” among individuals.

Airport officials say passengers entering restricted areas through exits pose a major security threat and can cost airports and airlines millions of dollars.

Last year in Detroit, for example, flights were canceled and a terminal was shut until a passenger who had gone the wrong way through an exit lane had been located. Irate passengers bombarded social media and airport phone lines.

“While it’s not a common occurrence, when it happens it can cause severe disruptions to air travel,” said William Young, a former Transportation Security Administration official who worked in Cleveland during the testing. “It’s a major security challenge for the T.S.A.” Mr. Young approached researchers at Northeastern about developing the software.

Officials like Mr. Young say T.S.A. and airport security personnel usually catch most offenders but only after closing sections of the airport and diverting staff members to conduct the search.

“So this could potentially help us better utilize the manpower we have and avoid having to cancel flights and close terminals if we have a better way of finding people who breach security,” Mr. Young said.

Most airports use video to track suspicious behavior. But while video feeds can help spot intruders, the sheer volume of information, and a troubling number of false alarms, can overwhelm security officers.

Another part of the advanced video analytics technology developed by Ms. Camps and Mr. Sznaier, which is known as the Video Analytic Surveillance Transition Project, or V.A.S.T., will solve the problem of false alarms by not only detecting a person trying to enter the secure area through an exit, but also by remembering that person’s identity using details such as their size and shape as well as the texture and color of their clothing. This allows security personnel to track them throughout the airport without having to shut down a terminal or the entire airport.

But not everyone embraces the new method of surveillance. Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said numerous questions remain about the potential widespread use of video analytics tools.

“There are so many issues raised by the use of these technologies,” she said. “Will the cameras have face-recognition capabilities, able to track your every move and tap into your Social Security number and other personal information?”

Ms. Crockford acknowledged that the software could be a valuable tool for airport security, but her fear, she said, is that the software could expand to track people in public areas outside airports.

“What starts in the airport doesn’t stay there,” she said.

At Northeastern, researchers say that they use a small amount of video data and that no personal information is gathered.

“In this project we use video feeds from cameras that are already installed at the airport and used by T.S.A. to monitor airport security in public areas,” Dr. Camps said. “No names or identities are associated at any time with the processed video.”

Researchers are also using the video analytics technology to conduct research for a project with Boston’s Logan International Airport to help it examine its security lines. The airport hopes to use the information to determine the length of the lines and speed of people moving through them to better deploy its security personnel.

The video surveillance, scanning and bomb detection technologies are funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Science and Technology. Northeastern University is part of a consortium of universities and private companies that receive about $3.5 million a year for the research and development of the technologies.

Homeland Security officials say it could be years before the technologies being developed here are fully deployed and even then they would not totally remove the human element from surveillance.

“But in an era of tight budgets these tools can help us use our resources better,” Mr. Young said.

A version of this article appears in print on May 9, 2015, on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: Privacy and Cost Clash With New Technologies for Security at Airports.


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