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More Than a Face in the Crowd

The events of Sept. 11 brought fundamental issues of security into sharp focus. How can we be sure that people are who they say they are? How can we stop terrorists and others intent on doing harm before they act? The facial recognition technology developed by Denis Berube's company may provide one answer.

By Laurance S. Morrison

On a rainy night, a small-town police officer brings in a haggard drunk-and-disorderly suspect. He takes his picture and enters it into the department's image database. Out comes a photo of a curly haired, skinny, smooth-faced teenager. But the prisoner is bald, with a bushy mustache, and 100 pounds heavier than the youth in the photo. Eyeing the image, the prisoner blurts out, "Where did you get my high school picture?"

Uganda, eager to protect the integrity of its first democratic election, uses a similar image database to ferret out irregularities. The system catches 30 people as they try to vote a second time a success that helps persuade the European Union of the merit of providing economic aid to help stabilize this emerging nation.

At the Super Bowl, in more than 150 casinos worldwide, in the motor vehicle registration departments of 15 states, and in Boston's hitherto porous Logan International Airport, facial recognition technology developed by one Massachusetts company is improving security, aiding law enforcement and helping build public confidence.

Viisage Technology in Littleton is a leading developer of facial biometric systems. Its "face-in-the-crowd" applications convert anybody's picture (even a composite sketch) to 128 coefficients, compare these with a database of more than a million facial images (the world's largest), and in under one second, either make a match or prove there is no match.

According to Denis K. Berube '65, the company's chairman, Viisage's emphasis on facial recognition stems from its belief that our faces are our most reliable and efficient means of identification. Code words and PINs can be lost, forgotten or stolen. Fingerprints are alterable through surgery. Retinal scans require cooperation, and the intrusive procedure must be done one person at a time.

Someone whose aim is to move unnoticed on the way to doing harm will hardly undergo such checks. But someone in a crowd can't avoid his own face. Even modest plastic surgery won't help. In fact, the proprietary algorithms underlying Viisage's security and protection products are so sensitive that they can distinguish between identical twins.

Viisage products offer private verification for point-of-sale transactions, secure authentication for computer, Internet and e-commerce connections, and keyless entry to secure facilities, such as offices, dormitories and government facilities. Annually, they deliver more than 25 million high-quality and high-security digital-identification documents for government agencies responsible for issuing driver's licenses, social services cards and law enforcement credentials.

They have helped detect ATM fraud, identify missing persons, spot deadbeat dads, and pick out fugitives for the U.S. Marshals. Recently, they helped National Geographic verify the identity of the "Afgan Girl," Sharbut Gula, by comparing recent photos of her with the famous image that graced the cover of the magazine 17years ago.

The company is best known for FaceFINDER, the system that provides security at casinos, sporting events and airports. Acclaimed for its fast processing speed, it has become the industry's most widely implemented surveillance and identification system. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office recently acknowledged Viisage's real-time face recognition technology as one of the 10 most important inventions to improve homeland security.

Viisage's emphasis on facial recognition stems from its belief that our faces are our most reliable and efficient means of identification.

Standing shirtsleeved in a busy bullpen of offices, Denis Berube sweeps his right arm to take in Viisage's buzzing 142,000-square-foot premises. "The people of Viisage could work anywhere in the world they choose to," he says. "They need the highest level of intellectual stimulation, the excitement of doing important work, and the comfort of knowing they can make a difference for the safety of our country. They're here."

Berube manages on the move. He roams. He listens. He talks. He waves. He questions. His eyes rove. He's casual, yet concentrated. "It's no mystery, this walking around," he says. "I can't be much of a leader if I can't influence our culture, and I can't influence our culture unless I'm right in the middle of it."

For more than three decades, Berube has found himself in the middle of a constantly changing panorama of leading-edge technology. Born in Holyoke, Mass., he attended Williston Academy in nearby Northampton, where he is now a trustee. He quarterbacked the football team, played shortstop on the baseball team, and led the ski team to two undefeated seasons. One day, without explanation, the headmaster informed him that he must apply to WPI. "He just told me," he says with a shrug.

"WPI put me in touch with the physical world at the same time that it taught me how to build relationships," says Berube, who majored in electrical engineering. "And my work ethic comes from my WPI days. I remember dying over those motor lab reports!

"But for all of the knowledge I came away with, it was my approach to life, my appreciation for the diversity of physical experiences, the hands-on philosophy, and the ability to network that make me truly grateful to WPI. I'm proud of the university's high ranking among the world's technology schools."

Recruited out of college to work for General Electric's Ordnance Systems unit in Pittsfield, Mass., he did field service engineering on the missile guidance and fire control systems for the Navy's fleet of ballistic submarines. "Working closely with weapons officers, some of whom I would later meet as admirals, I discovered how to stay in touch with the customer, to understand customer needs and even to anticipate them," he says.

The components of Berube's career were assembling themselves. In the 1970s, he was directly responsible for a large project involving ticklish requirements and improvements for accuracy, launch rate, inertial guidance, and the coordination of databases with the Defense Mapping Agency. It was complex in scope, even by today's standards, he says. He later managed advanced engineering, including fault tolerant flight and fire control design, for a one-of-a-kind "black operations" project involving the B-2 bomber. Meanwhile, in 1971, he earned a master's degree in electrical engineering at Union College.

"Thanks to WPI and Union College, I had a rock solid engineering education," Berube says. "My GE assignments immersed me in some of the world's most advanced engineering opportunities, and I came to appreciate the vital center of customer relationships." In 1985, Berube was recruited as vice president for marketing at Elbit Computers Limited, an Israeli firm headed by Gen. Benny Peled, the pilot in the famous Entebbe rescue operation. In just 30 months, the company, which produced thermal imaging and tank fire control systems, sprang from zero revenue to $50 million. By then Berube had married Joanna T. Lau, whom he'd met while both worked at GE. They shared a dream of someday working for themselves.

Born in Hong Hong, Lau is the daughter of the late Gen. Joseph Lau, who served in Chiang Kai-shek's army. She came to the United States in 1976, with her mother and five of her seven brothers and sisters, and got busy. She earned a bachelor's degree in computer science and applied mathematics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, a master's in computer engineering from Old Dominion University, a certificate from GE's prestigious ABC Program at Syracuse University, and an MBA from Boston University.

While still a student at BU, she organized the purchase of a defense industry subcontractor in Acton, Mass., a unit of an Arizona company called Bowmar. In 1990, Joanna and Denis and 23 Bowmar employees turned the buyout into Lau Technologies.

Then came Operation Desert Storm. Lau Technologies garnered a contract to supply circuit boards to upgrade malfunctioning Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which were being marshaled in large numbers to roll into Kuwait. In just 45 days, the company shipped 8,000 circuit boards to Riyadh, an assignment that would normally take 270 days. Knowing the company's reputation for quality, the U.S. Army bypassed the test-and-check stage and installed the circuit boards for combat; they worked perfectly.

In recognition of this achievement, Lt. Gen. Paul Greenberg, head of the Army Materiel Command, awarded Lau Technologies one of 11 Desert Storm Battle Ribbons conferred nationally. Subsequently, Joanna Lau received the esteemed Nunn-Perry Award for the company's excellent performance in the nation's defense.

Joanna and Denis saw four possible directions for Lau Technologies. "We focused on facial recognition in verifying driver's licenses, which we expanded into Viisage," he says, "but any one of those possibilities could have succeeded as we diversified from strictly military work."

Taking on the legendary Polaroid Corporation, Viisage acquired from MIT a technology dubbed EigenFace. The young company developed algorithms and spent millions of dollars and more than a hundred person-years in constructing its face-in-the-crowd technology and family of products.

Viisage continues to evolve. Through acquisitions in concert with its own research and development, the company is now marketing three new products that support its facial recognition product lines. Berube sees significant consolidation coming in the biometric and security systems integration industry, a trend that should be a boon to Viisage, currently the world's largest face recognition company, with a revenue market share of 47 percent.

Lau Technologies departed the military marketplace last fall with the sale of Lau Defense Systems Inc. to Curtis-Wright. The parent company of Viisage now stares startups straight in the face and ushers them through their growing pains, Berube says. The engineer-businessman declares Viisage different from the oft-maligned venture capitalists who, in the view of some, care only about profit. "Sometimes," he notes, "even without investing in a company or sitting on its board, we provide friendly assistance, just for the love of it."

-Morrison leads a full-service communications firm based in Sturbridge, Mass.

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