Terrorism boosts business for Lau

INTRO TEXT

Six months ago, Joanna Lau was fending off skeptics who regarded her company’s face-recognition software as another iffy high-tech toy, an intriguing technology with an uncertain market and troubling implications. Its most publicized tryout–at last year’s Super Bowl, where the faces of 75,000 entering fans were scanned and matched against a database of wanted criminals–caught more grief than crooks, as civil libertarians called it a Big Brother invasion of privacy. (The mass mug shot generated 19 initial matches but resulted in no arrests.)

Then came September 11.

“Opportunities all of a sudden just opened up,” says Lau, the founder of Littleton-based Lau Technologies and its spin-off, Viisage Technology, a leader in the face-recognition field.

In October, the Viisage system was installed in Fresno, Calif., at the first US airport to make use of the new face-based screening tool. And the Viisage technology is slated to be deployed on a test basis at one security checkpoint at Logan International Airport. (A system designed by one of the company’s chief rivals will be tried out elsewhere at Logan.)

Lau is betting that face scans will one day be as much a part of airline security as sending carry-on bags through X-ray machines. “We see it as a very logical move,” says Lau. “You walk through a metal detector, so what’s the difference?”

Once the stuff of James Bond movies, high-tech security tools like face-recognition are suddenly attracting lots of real-world attention–and money. The federal government could spend as much as $600 million on research and development of anti-terrorism technology over the next year. In late November, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and consulting giant Arthur D. Little organized a Cambridge forum at which 250 representatives of Bay State firms, including Viisage, were briefed on opportunities for federal funding of anti-terrorism technologies. Jeff Lockwood, director of program development for the MTC, says the message from federal officials was this: “If you have a product on the shelf or in development and you can get it out the door in 12 to 18 months, we want to hear from you.”

Lau has her product ready. Using a technique developed at MIT in the early 1990s, the rights to which Lau Technologies acquired in 1994, Viisage’s software categorizes facial characteristics based on 128 archetypal face structures. A digitized video image captured at an airport security checkpoint can be matched, almost instantly, against a database of hundreds of faces on a target list of wanted suspects.

Face-recognition systems could be an “aid to law enforcement comparable to an X-ray machine or a metal detector,” says James Wayman, director of the National Biometric Test Center at San Jose State University, which studies identification schemes based on measuring human characteristics. “Culling through large image sets looking for possible matches is a task at which computers are very, very much better at than people.”

But he adds that the systems can be only as good as the data put into them. “Do we really know what the terrorists look like? Do we have good quality pictures of them?” asks Wayman. And with various high-tech ID systems under study, he says, it’s yet to be determined which technology will be the “most economical or the most reliable.”

While its use at the Super Bowl (and on street corners in a handful of cities where it’s been deployed) raises thorny privacy issues, face-recognition screening at airports, border crossings, and other sensitive locations seems likely to meet with greater acceptance. Indeed, it could eliminate some of the broad ethnic-group targeting that many find objectionable.

“We’re not doing profiling here,” says Lau. “All you appear to the computer as is ones or zeros.”

The Hong Kong-born immigrant founded Lau Technologies in 1990 by taking over, and resuscitating, an Acton-based supplier of electronic parts to the defense industry (“Turning Heads and Profits,” CommonWealth, Winter 2000). Viisage was born in 1996, when she spun off–and took public–a digital-imaging unit that had been developed within the company. Lau maintains a 40 percent stake in Viisage.

To date, Viisage’s main business has been digital-photo driver’s licenses for states. But the potential security applications of face-recognition technology have always figured prominently in the firm’s long-range plans. Now, Lau is concentrating her business on this technology more than ever; she sold Lau Technologies’ original defense-systems unit in October.

Although Lau is sensitive to the charge that companies like hers are capitalizing on tragedy, saying instead that she regards Viisage’s work as part of the “war on terrorism,” there’s no denying that this war could be very good for business. Viisage’s share price has soared in the wake of September 11, from about $2 a share before the terrorist attack to more than $14 in mid-December. But Lau has seen dramatic stock swings before. In its first three years, Viisage stock traded as high as $20 and as low as 63 cents.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“Stock markets can do a lot of things,” she says. “The key thing is to make money.” Which Viisage is now doing. The company has recorded profits in the last eight quarters, including net income of $628,000, or four cents a share, on sales of $19.4 million for the first nine months of 2001.

“We were persistent,” says Lau. “We believed this technology was going to make sense.” She’s hoping to convince those in charge of the nation’s security of that, too.