PALO ALTO -- At the international airport in Sochi, Russia, the entry point for thousands of athletes, spectators and world leaders bound for the 2014 Winter Olympics, a state-of-the-art security system made by a Silicon Valley company is keeping watch.
Artec Group, a 3-D camera tech company founded in the valley by Russian engineers, has created facial recognition software that Sochi officials are using to improve airport security during the games, which have been threatened by terrorist attacks. The technology, which uses a 3-D camera to identify a person using their facial features, is screening airport employees and officials entering secure areas. Experts say facial recognition could soon be in airports across the United States to screen passengers.
Artec, which has offices in San Jose, Russia and Luxembourg, is set to open a showroom and 3-D printing center on University Avenue in Palo Alto on Tuesday.
Artec Chief Executive Artyom Yukhin says the 3-D software can distinguish between identical twins, isn't fooled by disguises and offers one of the most advanced improvements in airport security. It also carries with it concerns about personal privacy violations and another layer of the NSA-type data gathering that has outraged much of the nation.
"It's one thing to gather public data by having a police officer tail you," said Christopher Budd, global threats communication manager for data security firm Trend Micro. "When those physical limitations are removed, it becomes much easier to build a profile of someone."
Facial recognition is common in social media and retail -- Facebook uses it to suggest names on photos, Google Plus' "Find My Face" relies on similar technology and even some TVs come with facial recognition. But the technology has also become a favorite tool for law enforcement and intelligence officials as the security industry has focused on real-time identification of threats, Budd said.
Yukhin said the facial recognition software is used at other Russian airports and has been tested in airports around the world. He said Artec Group's partners in the U.S. have been discussing with aviation authorities ways to add the technology to this country's larger airports. Artec's partners include Unisys, one of the largest security technology companies.
"There is a lot of testing going on," Yukhin said. "It's definitely going to come to airports" to screen passengers.
A report published in May by The World Economic Forum and research firm Boston Consulting Group predicts that facial recognition will become part of a fully-automated check-in system at airports and border crossings by 2025.
"Check-in for a flight would be expedited by replacing paper documents with an electronic passport, as well as biometric traveler identification through fingerprints, facial recognition or an iris scan," according to the report.
Yukhin said facial recognition would speed up lines at the airport and improve security, because airport officials match the passenger's passport photo against the photo in the government computer system against the facial recognition software to confirm the identity.
"From a security point of view the nice thing is you are targeting not what someone is going to do, but who they are, and that's a very powerful thing," Budd said.
But in cases of false-positives — and the software can make mistakes — innocent people face the risk of being wrongly accused, and may not have a clear or easy way to appeal, experts say.
Yukhin said faces are public data — unlike social security numbers or bank accounts — and the privacy intrusion is less than many of the security systems currently in use. All your neighbors know what your face looks like, he said.
But some privacy experts say it's unclear what happens with the data and worry that security officials may use it to build a profile on people without their knowledge.
"When we talk about public data, there is no notice about consent," Budd said. "With Facebook you have the option to not open an account. When you are walking down the street you don't have the option to say 'Don't use facial recognition on me.'"
Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.