News 11 October 2001

A summary of technological developments in the past week

Face-recognition technology to point out criminals at U.S. airports

In a development that can be directly linked to the call for more stringent airline security in the wake of the 11 September hijackings of four commercial flights from U.S. airports, Viisage Technology Inc., Littleton, Mass., announced on 4 October that it has been contracted to install the first face-recognition system at a U.S. airport. The system checks images from surveillance camera footage against criminal mugshots. Though the company would not reveal the name of the airport where it will be deployed, a spokesman said it will be operational within the next month.

Software makers at work on hijack-prediction technology

HNC Software Inc., San Diego, Calif., a leading maker of risk-detection software that allows credit card companies to detect unauthorized transactions and insurance companies to root out fraud, announced on 4 October that it has teamed up with PROS Revenue Management Inc., Houston, Texas, which manages payment and ticketing systems for several major airlines, to develop software that would identify potential hijackers by searching reservation records for suspicious patterns. The software will combine HNC’s algorithms for identifying patterns in data with PROS’ data-driven forecasting methods.

The program, say its developers, will generate a score, between one and 1000, for each flight based on the probability that a security problem exists; 1000 is extremely high risk. The score will alert airline personnel, who could cancel a flight or delay it to re-check baggage or question passengers.

Responding to concerns that using data-mining software for such applications could violate customers’ civil rights, HNC chief executive John Mutch said, "The system will have to draw data on individuals but the profiles are anonymous." Mutch conceded that "There’s no question, there is a trade-off between security and privacy."

Anonymous Web surfing vanishes

Zero-Knowledge Systems, a Montreal-based security and privacy software vendor, announced on 4 October that it will no longer offer its Freedom Network services that allow users to surf the Web and send e-mail anonymously. Refunds will be issued to customers who have prepaid for use of the company’s stealth technology. The latest update of Zero-Knowledge’s Freedom, Privacy, & Security Tools software suite, which lets the user create a personal firewall, will not include stealth tools. So while the computers upon which the software is loaded will remain protected from hackers and other cyber intruders, the software will no longer cloak users’ identities during forays outside the firewall.

A company spokesman denied a link between the move and the events of 11 September. It had been speculated that U.S. government pressure led to termination of the service and modification of the software, but the company maintains that the decision was reached months ago because the market for this capability was not large enough.

Mobile phone tracking deadline pushed back

On 5 October, The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave conditional approval to several wireless telephone carriers to delay implementing so-called E-911 technology for locating mobile phones that have dialed the nation’s universal emergency number beyond the original 1 October deadline. Verizon Wireless, Sprint PCS, Nextel Communications, Cingular Wireless, and AT&T Wireless got the reprieve, but the last two face sanctions for failing to submit plans pertaining to other parts of their wireless networks by an earlier deadline.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell expressed disappointment at the delay, saying, "I am unsatisfied with the progress we have made thus far. I know and respect that carriers have made concerted strides in this area, but those efforts must be re-doubled." The FCC will monitor the carriers’ compliance with the deployment schedules they have submitted. The carriers will have to file quarterly progress reports beginning in February 2002.

When the rollout of E-911 technology is complete–by 31 December 2005–carriers will be required to locate two-thirds of mobile phones within a 50- to 100-meter radius and 95 percent within 150 to 300 meters.

For now, only Sprint PCS has a phone with this capability on the market. But the network service required to make use of the built-in GPS receiver will not be introduced until next month. Even then, it will only be available in Rhode Island.

New Bell Labs software to make all wireless networks compatible

Researchers at Bell Labs, the famed R&D unit of Lucent Technologies Inc., Murray Hill, N.J., reported on 9 October that they have developed software that will bridge different network types, giving mobile phone users all the services they are accustomed to (like voice mail access), even when they are outside their home networks. Today’s phones cannot roam onto other networks, most often because differences in the most common air interface technologies–code-division multiple-access, time-division multiple-access, and Global system for Mobile Communications–prevent networks from communicating with each other to share data on a user’s profile and right to use a particular service.

No word was given on when the software would be added to wireless networks.

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