Amber Alert Gets Ready to Go High-Tech with Introduction of Biometrics

Advanced facial imaging technology tested at W.Va. schools would allow Amber Alerts to distribute images of the missing children


FAIRMONT, W.Va. (AP) - Technology being tested with West Virginia schoolchildren may soon take the Amber Alert system to a new level by offering police an instant, three-dimensional image of a missing child rather than a fuzzy family photo.

With the sophisticated, high-resolution digital imagery of AmberView, a glimpse into a passing car might be enough to identify a kidnapped child - even with a face caught in profile.

``We really think we're making biometrics history here,'' says Patrick Gregg, spokesman for AmberView's creator, the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation.

But it's the application, not the technology, that's new.

The foundation has combined existing biometrics technology with a $26,000 British-made scanner and a $495,000 federal grant to build a database of children's faces unlike any compiled before.

For just three seconds, lights flash and lines appear, registering the shape and dimensions of a child's face, and measuring such traits as the distance between the ears or eyes.

Instantly, a 3-D image appears on a computer screen. It can be rotated, enlarged and tilted to various angles. While the shape of a nose or the curve of a cheekbone may not register in a normal photograph, AmberView makes every detail visible.

As of Wednesday, the foundation had only 230 images of students from three north-central West Virginia middle schools.

``But we could have already scanned 5,000, that's how positive the response has been,'' says program manager Bob Chico.

By this time next year, there may be tens of thousands in the database, and if simulated alerts work as expected, AmberView could quickly go nationwide.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates nearly 800,000 children go missing each year. Most of those who die are killed within the first three hours.

``These are frightening statistics for parents,'' Chico says, ``but AmberView gives them a ray of hope.''

Amber Alerts began in 1996 after the kidnapping and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington, Texas. In April, 2003, President Bush signed legislation making it a national program.

Officials with CodeAmber.org, a Web-based system that distributes Amber Alerts in the continental United States and southern Canada, welcomes what AmberView promises.

``We would advocate any project that will expedite the police having a viable copy of a child's picture - anything they can do to get a picture in the system faster,'' says Linda Spagnoli, communications director for Louisiana-based CodeAmber. ``The more people that see hear and know about an Amber Alert, the greater the chance of recovering the child.''

Spagnoli says one deficiency in the current system is that law enforcement in smaller jurisdictions often don't have photo scanners or don't know how to use them.

``No one company can do this on their own,'' she says. ``It will take a community effort in every single county and every single state to get the majority of kids onto a system that can be used.''

Not everyone thinks that's a good idea.

Hilary Sessions, director of Florida-based Child Protection Education of America Inc., has concerns about a database.

``It's a good idea at first glance, but it's very private information that we believe only parents should have,'' she says.

Parents also need instant access to the images and information in case they relocate, she says.

Chico, however, says AmberView plans to give every parent a CD-ROM with the child's image and physical description. Photos would be updated every year on school picture day.

The program is voluntary, and the foundation is sensitive to concerns about privacy, he said.

AmberView does not involve fingerprinting, which was done on a large scale in the '80s and '90s, with millions of prints collected.

Chico says that gave parents a false sense of security; fingerprints are more helpful in identifying a child after death than in helping to locate them.

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