Can better facial recognition technology prevent the next ISIL attack?

By Steve Brachmann
November 17, 2015

globe-camera-surveillance-335On the evening of Friday, November 13th, the city of Paris and its suburb Saint-Denis were targeted in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of at least 129 people and injured another 352 people as of this writing. Targets of the attack include the Bataclan nightclub, restaurants Le Petit Cambodge and La Belle Équipe and the sports stadium Stade du France. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as either ISIL or ISIS, have claimed responsibility for planning and executing the attacks. Seven attackers were confirmed dead It was the worst attack on French soil since World War II and the deadliest terrorist attack in Europe since the March 2004 bombings of commuter trains in the Spanish capital of Madrid.

News headlines in recent weeks have sadly reflected an increase in ISIL activities. Although it is not yet confirmed, the terror group has claimed responsibility for the October 31st bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft over Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, killing 224 people. The day before the Paris attacks, a pair of bombs were detonated within minutes of each other in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, killing 41 people and wounding another 200. ISIL again claimed responsibility for the act, an attack that was condemned even by the Islamist militant group Hezbollah.

We’ve discussed how technological innovations in the field of chemical detection have been applied to detect explosive materials at airport security checkpoints. Of course, there’s plenty of technology that terrorist operatives have been able to use to their advantage. In April 2013, a senior British security official noted how advances in communications technologies are being used by ISIL and others to better coordinate attacks. In November 2008, a series of terrorist attacks occurring over the course of four days were conducted by Pakistani members of Lashkar-e-Taiba. Investigations into those attacks found that terror operatives utilized GPS location systems, satellite phones and even studied Google Earth satellite images to plan the attacks.

One tech tool coming from the social media world was able to instantly connect people all over the world that their friends and loved ones in the area were safe. Facebook Safety Check, a system for geolocating Facebook users and asking them to “check in” as safe, was originally developed to respond to natural disasters like the April 2015 Nepal earthquake. However, it was activated in response to the Paris attacks, the first time that the feature was activated for an attack and not a weather event, suggesting wider applications for the service. Safety Check can even work without an Internet connection as Facebook users in an affected area can confirm their status via text message.

As it often is in times of crisis, Twitter became another source of comfort and consolation to those affected by the terror attacks and was actively used as a tool by those seeking a safe place. One of the top trending hashtags on Twitter after the attacks was #PorteOuverte, which translates into “door open” in English. It wasn’t a perfect solution; many Twitter posts used #PorteOuverte as a rallying cry and not as a way to ask for shelter or advertise a safe place, diluting the intended effect of using the hashtag. Of course, ISIL’s own predilections towards the use of social media are well known and the organization had its own Twitter campaign in response to Friday’s attacks.

It’s not good enough to leave the conversation at how well consumer tech enables innocent victims to respond in the face of evil. Rather, the question which is it our job to focus on here is how well can technology prevent evil from happening in light of the scant details about the attack which are currently available. Where do we need to innovate and become smarter and more technologically savvy in order to eradicate ISIL like the pestilence that it is?

Reports from Paris indicate that at least one of the attackers was known by French anti-terror authorities to have ties to radical Islamist groups. However, one of the issues noted during the coverage of these most recent attacks in Paris and this January’s massacre at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, France lacks the security personnel to effectively monitor every person of interest suspected to have extremist ties. Intelligence that is collected but cannot be applied properly isn’t useful intelligence.

Facial recognition technologies often raise concerns over citizen privacy but as it becomes more reliable and accurate, it begins to offer a better solution for identifying suspicious persons before they are able to execute an attack, especially when security forces are lacking. The use of facial recognition techniques were suggested in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings when video and images of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev helped police to identify them. Admittedly, those images are much less conducive to identifying suspects than mugshots, which don’t suffer from obscured or angled views. One company developing facial recognition technologies to help law enforcement identify suspects is MorphoTrust USA. The facial and iris recognition tools developed by MorphoTrust are used by agencies such as the FBI and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in crime investigations.

Research taking place at Old Dominion is also leading to better prototypes for facial recognition technologies that can recognize terrorists before they enter the country. A project funded by the DoD has been looking into ways to improve facial recognition technologies for use at vulnerable locations like airports and sports stadiums. Work performed at the Old Dominion Vision Lab has contributed to this project and researchers note that the technology is not designed to recognize everyone but rather those persons of interest that law enforcement would want to keep tabs on.

The National Security Agency had been working to beef up its ability to effectively monitor those suspected of having terrorist ties and walking within the borders of the United States. Thanks to the Edward Snowden leaks, we know that the organization at least had been actively building a picture database using millions of pictures culled from e-mail, social media and video conferences. Although civil liberties and data privacy questions have abounded from this, it has been noted in at least the report linked above that, thanks to federal privacy laws, the images collected would most likely be of foreign citizens.

Now may be the perfect time to have the discussion on whether additional government surveillance of data may have its place in a time when it’s clear that communications technologies have been used to plot and carry out attacks. Recently, the European Court of Justice, the highest court in the EU, declared invalid the U.S.-EU agreement regarding safe harbor for the data practices of American businesses. A privacy activist was able to successfully argue that, in light of new information on NSA’s data mining practices, that American businesses could no longer self-certify that their data would be kept private from government agencies. In light of the Paris attacks, this is a crucial three-month period during which our Congress must develop new safe harbor rules with which the European Union can agree. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that those new safe harbor rules could go too far in the direction of protecting individual privacy at the risk of allowing that which we shouldn’t allow. Europe is also the land of the right to be forgotten, which is the principle that private citizens should be able to petition search engines like Google to have unwanted personal information taken off of the Internet. Although a request to hide information related to jihadi activities would seem to serve as a sufficient red flag, it’s also true that there are some things that shouldn’t be forgotten, for the greater good.

Innovation is a tough thing to predict but it helps to look at how technology development has responded to past tragedies similar to this. The September 11th terror attacks inspired a wide array of innovations that could stop a similar attack, from the remote control of hijacked airplanes to video bio-monitoring systems which could be able to accurately detect when someone is lying. There’s no doubt that the blood running through the streets of Paris late Friday night will go a long way in encouraging the next innovations in terrorist recognition and elimination technologies.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a writer located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He has become a regular contributor to IPWatchdog.com, writing about technology, innovation and is the primary author of the Companies We Follow series. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients.

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