Face-recognition technology, often touted as a promising tool in the fight against terrorism, earned a bad reputation after it failed miserably in some well-publicized tests for picking faces out of crowds. Yet, on simpler challenges, the technology’s performance is improving and business has been growing.

Major casinos now use the technology to spot card counters at blackjack tables. Washington is planning to require the technology in the next generation of American passports. Several states are using face-recognition systems to check for individuals who have obtained multiple driver’s licenses by lying about their identity. And Pinellas County, Fla., recently began deploying the system in police cars so officers can check the people they stop against a database of photographs without having to go back to the office.

Face-recognition systems, using cameras and computers to map someone’s facial features, collect the data for storage in databases or on a microchip on documents like passports. Making the technology work has required nearly perfect lighting and cooperative subjects, conditions that are not present when trying to spot suspected terrorists and criminals in a crowd.

That kind of application, however, remains a goal. This summer, the National Institute of Standards and Technology will stage a competition, challenging vendors to cut error rates on systems it tested in 2002 by at least 90 percent, with the results to be published next year. The prize for top performers – bragging rights based on impartial tests – is a valuable marketing tool in an industry filled with small companies.

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