The current review of air freight security by UK and US governments presents an ideal opportunity
to realise the benefits of next generation facial surveillance technology in protecting the safety and
security of cargo areas.
Unwelcome developments in the threat environment, such as explosives disguised as toner
cartridges on cargo planes and increasing pressure on security and customs teams from these and
other sources, have brought into sharp focus the need to radically review the security of cargo areas.
While the safety and security of passenger planes has arguably never been as comprehensive and
stringent as it is today, cargo planes are often more vulnerable to attack for a number of reasons.
Security protocols vary around the world and not all cargo is x-rayed or scrutinised as closely
as passenger baggage. Even where x-ray machines are in use, critics say that they are often not
effective tools to deal with bulk cargo.
The toner cartridge ‘bomb’ incident in October 2010 was just one of a number of worrying
developments that have highlighted the danger of a potential terrorist attack on a cargo plane; an
attack that could have disastrous consequences for large numbers of people.
The key defence, of course, is good security at the air-side boundary throughout the airport– particularly the achievement of good access control for staff authorised to work air-side among the
planes – and this presents a serious challenge for cargo handlers. The achievement and maintenance
of top class security measure to prevent unauthorised personnel from entering the critical air-side
areas is becoming an increasingly important issue throughout the airports of the world.
The application of modern facial biometric systems has helped greatly where it has been introduced
by far-sighted operators, but most face recognition technology can only be used effectively in overt
control of access to secure areas, alerting potential attackers and only operating fully effectively if
entrants co-operate willingly with the system. Now, UK-based OmniPerception has developed next
generation facial access control and surveillance technology that can monitor movement and check
identity covertly – seeing without being seen.
The technology has been incorporated in a product called CheckPoint.S™ which has the unique
capability to analyse a person’s face and compare it against an existing identity database while the
person is moving past a camera at some distance from it. Traditional face recognition technology
needs a close-up shot of a person looking directly at the camera in order to have any chance of
CheckPoint.S™ was the culmination of many years of research into the core technology and
the direct result of 18 months of highly focused research and development (R&D) by experts in
OmniPerception’s Guildford, UK headquarters. The final stages of the process were made possible
through funding support from BAE Systems - which is committed to championing new technology
The fact that CheckPoint.S™ is a covert system that can follow a person’s face and pin down their
identity in seconds is set to revolutionise the safety and security of vulnerable cargo areas. The
spotting of unauthorised persons is instant and extremely accurate.
If a person is a known criminal or terrorist and has their image recorded on the database, then they
will immediately be identified and the authorities alerted.
Though CheckPoint.S™ is an effective security tool on a stand-alone basis, it is of course even more
effective when cargo operators and airport authorities work together with local law enforcers to
compile and maintain a joint database of known individuals; and this database can be constantly
updated as more information comes to hand.
To optimise the effectiveness of this new technology, particularly in the context of international
terrorism, the database of known ‘undesirables’ would have to be an international database and
receive the support of all countries. Although this would be a challenging task, it should not be
too difficult to achieve and requires political will and multi-lateral trust rather than technological
The political will now exists to improve security and biometric technology that can make a real
difference if used in the right way. I believe that it has immense potential to help protect vulnerable
cargo areas, in airports and elsewhere.
The covert CheckPoint.S™ solution has been developed from OmniPerception’s CheckPoint™ Secure
Access Control system, originally developed by the company for a major international financial
institution to protect secure access to sensitive areas across the UK. CheckPoint™ is an overt system
used for both access control and ‘clocking in’.
In the airport security sector, for instance, it is currently being used by one operator in Heathrow to
tighten up security there.
One of the strengths of the Heathrow CheckPoint™ application is that it provides a turnstile-type
system which prevents anyone entering a secure area until his identity has been verified. It also
prevents ‘tailgating’ in which an unauthorised person slips in behind someone entering legitimately.
With CheckPoint™ embedded in a turnstile system, this ruse is not available to criminals, terrorists
or anyone else.
All our customers are finding that because the CheckPoint™ system is not only quick and accurate
but is also easy to use, it has full staff buy-in.
These issues are not to be dismissed. It would be a mistake for the industry to become complacent
about the importance of public acceptance – in the case staff acceptance of the technology – or to
overlook the need to pay careful attention to the debates about the ‘Big Brother’ society and the
potential for infringement of civil rights.
Technology, of course, is only part of a wider solution alongside other security measures, such
as staff vigilance and specialist training in how to identify and deal with suspicious people and
Also, these days especially, cost is a key issue for baggage and cargo handlers as well as airport
authorities who, like the rest of the world, are experiencing testing financial times. It is important
to be mindful of costs considerations and so try to work with customers from the outset to provide
them with technology that is tailored to their individual needs.
This way, costs can be controlled and are open and transparent. These austere times have meant
that the relationships between technology suppliers and their customers have shifted. There is now
a greater onus on the suppliers to provide solutions that are not only effective but also high value for
In this context, having decided that a positive identification (biometric) solution is needed, another
key issue for cargo suppliers is to weigh up the benefits of using face recognition over other
biometrics, such as iris or fingerprint technology.
While fingerprinting is extremely accurate in many areas of its use, it should be remembered that
there is a significant percentage of people who do not have a registerable fingerprint at all – either
temporarily or permanently. Also, fingerprinting in some applications or in specific geographical
areas of the world has significant operational as well as psychological disadvantages.
The taking of each person’s fingerprint means they are required to touch surfaces that other people
have touched, which is a distasteful idea to many and does in fact involve some actual risk of disease
transmission – especially in epidemic situations. There are also very clear criminal implications
associated with fingerprints that can often make their use unpalatable to the public.
Iris technology has proven its accuracy in laboratory trials and in some limited field applications,
but in bulk trials with mass transit in mind it has been found wanting. For instance, over 30%
of the disabled people in one of the UK Home Office biometric trials proved unable to achieve
iris registration at all. This kind of practical limitation poses a real problem for passport and
identification documentation (ID) card applications alike.
Though automatic face recognition has had a good deal of negative press over the years, we could
argue that modern ‘third generation’ face recognition technology is now the leading biometric
solution for mass transit and mass ID purposes.
One of the key benefits of using facial recognition technology is that it is not as intrusive as the other
two methods, nor is it as difficult to use. User acceptance is a key aspect that runs through this
whole debate, particularly bearing in mind that both the UK and the US are nations that rely on their
good international relations; and the welcome visitors who come from trade and tourism; as well as
protecting itself against the unwanted ones.
With this in mind, face recognition is the preferred solution – effective and easy to install, to use and to maintain.
It is clear that the onus will be on cargo handlers and airport authorities to ensure that cargo security
measures stay at least one step ahead of the threats. We predict that face recognition technology
will continue to play an increasingly important part in that endeavour in the coming years.