In the wake of the deadly Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some high-tech firms are likely to keep busy in the coming years as federal authorities call on them to help patch security holes at the nation's airports.
Whether the technology involves sophisticated scanning machines that can see through clothing or biometric devices that can identify suspected terrorists by the patterns in their eye, analysts say these firms should play a key role in helping make the skies safer.
"There's a lot of technology out there that's brand-new that airports have not taken advantage of," said Randall Biang, senior director for Fitch Inc., an investment research group. "As time goes by, they'll have no choice but to beef up security. A lot of the stuff will become ubiquitous."
Experts say that also could mean that travelers, like it or not, may soon have to run a gantlet of new airport security devices that previously may have been considered too costly.
Brook Miller of Barringer Technologies, which makes high-tech security products, called last week's tragic events a huge wake-up call.
"This is the precipitating event to change how we approach security," said Miller, a vice president at the New Jersey company.
All checked-in and carry-on luggage goes through basic X-ray screening for firearms or other weapons, which show shadow images of overlapping objects.
But increasingly, airports are using more advanced scanning equipment that produces clear cross-sectional images that help detect chemicals or materials used for bombs and other weapons.
Leading this industry is InVision Technologies Inc. of Newark, Calif., which manufactures sophisticated scanners that recognize explosives by measuring the densities of a bag's contents. Explosives often are made of materials with high densities. The InVision machines cost about $1 million each.
New security systems also could provide more detailed information about passengers, such as scanners that project X-ray images of the human body. These typically cost $100,000.
Recently, U.S. Customs began using a device called BodySearch, which uses low-power X-ray to see through clothing.
There also is new interest in biometric identification technology, which would add another layer of security, said Raj Nanavati, partner with the independent research firm International Biometric Group.
Biometric technology, which uses physical characteristics or patterns that are unique to each human fingerprints, hand geometry, face, voice, signature and eye retina and iris patterns is more precise than using a forgeable driver's license or passport to identify a person, Nanavati said.
International Biometric Group, which moved just last year from the 87th floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower to a new location in nearby Battery Park, estimates the biometric industry will grow from $523 million in revenues this year to $1.9 billion in 2005.
Checking the prints
"We have little black boxes that sit outside a doorway, and the only way you get in is by placing your fingerprint on it," said Grant Evans, an Identix executive vice president with Identix of Los Gatos, Calif.
The scanners take an image of a person's fingerprints and read the breaks and splits that are unique in every person, Evans said. The technology reads those 30 to 40 breaks, called "minutia" points in a fingerprint, and converts them into a computer algorithm that is matched against a database of other fingerprints.
So far, the technology is only used to identify airport and airline employees. But Evans said fingerprint scanners have one major advantage that could speed deployment of the devices to identify passengers.
Fingerprints have been used as an identification and security method for a century, meaning there are vast databases already kept by law enforcement agencies, banks, hospitals, schools and other industries that require background checks.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service, an Identix customer, had some of the hijackers identified in the Sept. 11 attacks in a "watch" list, and they could have conceivably been flagged by an airport fingerprint check, Evans said.
Evans envisions a time when airline passengers could be required to have their fingerprints scanned as they checked in baggage, and once again at the boarding gate. The fingerprints then could be checked against an already existing database of known terrorists, he said.
This fall, the International Air Transport Assn. will test a retinal scanning system on 2,000 passengers who frequently fly into London's Heathrow Airport on British Airways or Virgin Atlantic.
The system, made by EyeTicket Corp. of McLean, Va., recognizes the unique patterns of a person's iris, the colored ring around the pupil. All the passenger has to do is look into a video camera for two seconds.
And Nanavati said airports see the possibilities in computer programs that can pick out faces in a crowd.
One is a program called FaceIt, made by Visionics Corp. of New Jersey, that uses video cameras to capture pictures of faces. The program computes the unique measurements of each face using 60 possible points, such as the center of the eyes, the bridge of the nose or cheekbone protrusions. Those measurements, which don't change due to age or disguise, are converted into a mathematical algorithm that can be compared with other faces in a database.
Face recognition technology has been used in Tampa, Fla., to patrol a nightclub district. So far, a database of about 30,000 people, including wanted criminals, has been compiled.
Miller, of Barringer Technologies, said the airport security equipment industry is still small with revenues of about $500 million a year. The Federal Aviation Administration has focused more on security technology since the 1988 bombing of Pan American Flight 103, said spokesman Jerry Snyder.
Biang, of the investment research group, said the industry itself has been hit by the overall economic slump, but the Sept. 11 tragedy could spur more demand for security systems.
Some security equipment companies were reluctant to speculate on how the terrorist attacks could affect their industry, for fear of appearing opportunistic.
Systems that rely on very private physical information such as personnel X-ray scanners and biometrics have also been criticized as being too invasive by civil rights advocates.
But the pressure is mounting for greater security measures at high-risk locations like airports, the kind of "closed environment" in which biometrics works best, Nanavati said.
"Biometrics are going to be used more and more every year," Nanavati said. "There's a lot of potential for the technology, but it needs to be balanced with privacy considerations."
David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C., research group focused on technology and privacy issues, cautioned against moving too quickly in turning to technology for better security.
"The problem is that technology moves much faster than the legal framework governing the technology," he said. "We need to be careful in putting potentially invasive systems in wide use. It's a problem to just deploy technology without thinking through the potential implications."