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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2002
Face recognition technology, that wonder of wonders able to pluck evildoers out of a crowd and make us safe from criminals and terrorists at airports, sporting events and on public streets, turns out to work about as well as a Firestone tire.
Ybor City was to be the great large-scale debut of face recognition technology. The makers of FaceIt software promised their system could map a person's face, identify individual characteristics and match those to a database of wanted criminals or known terrorists. To show just how effective the system could be, Visionics Corp. of New Jersey gave Tampa police 26 color video cameras, the software and the necessary computers for a one-year test run. The new cameras were added to the 10 already situated along the central thoroughfare of the Ybor City entertainment district. But the picture so far, according to records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, is more than a little blurry. Since the system was deployed in June, the computers have not registered a single accurate "hit." Not one. There were many false matches, though. Tampa police records show that FaceIt sometimes matched a male face with a female identity.
In August, Tampa police abandoned face scanning entirely and just recently began its use again. Katie Hughes, the department's spokesperson, says the cessation was due to the department "just dropping the ball." But if the product was an effective tool it wouldn't have sat unused for months with no one noticing.
About 125,000 people visit Ybor City on any given Friday, but, for the facial comparisons to take place, the system operator has to focus a camera on an individual, separately scanning his or her face into the computer. That means in a large crowd relatively few people will be checked. In July, the St. Petersburg Times' Lane DeGregory spent a night with an officer on face-scan duty and found that in a five-hour period only 457 images were transmitted to the computer -- about one in every 273 people.
And it's not only clunky to use but easy to beat. Experts and studies say the scanning is thrown off by sunglasses, changes in facial hair, bad lighting or not being in the same position as the original photo. "A 15-degree difference in position between the query image and the database image will adversely affect performance," said a report on facial recognition technology issued in February 2000 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "At a difference of 45 degrees, recognition becomes ineffective."
So unless you can get that alleged thief or terrorist to look directly at the camera, he may very well be passed over.
Deploying this technology at airports, as Boston, Palm Beach, Dallas and other airports plan to do, makes about as much security sense as confiscating tweezers out of carryons when the checked luggage is not yet thoroughly screened or matched to passengers who board the aircraft. It's all about appearances, a hope of deterrence, and little about actual added safety.
What is more concerning, though, is the ease with which our society is embracing biometric surveillance and identification, without bothering to have a national conversation on the impact of these technologies on privacy. While face recognition products might not be advanced enough yet to peruse a crowd and successfully identify every person who corresponds to the database, one day they might be. At that point the government would have the tools to track us wherever we are and wherever we go.
In Colorado, the legislature has directed the Motor Vehicles Department to obtain a facial map of anyone applying for a driver's license for the first time. Feeding mapped facial images into a FaceIt database would boost the technology's effectiveness immeasurably.
If the state were to combine these images with a network of face-scanning cameras, Colorado drivers could potentially be followed anywhere.
State motor vehicle administrators also want in. Their professional association has announced it wants to standardize drivers' licenses across the country with the use of biometrics, possibly a 3-D facial scan. The group is asking Congress to make drivers' licenses a national I.D. card, linking them to Social Security and immigration databases. (And who know what other databases in the future. Deadbeat dads?)
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks should not mean the end of American privacy. We have a right to live our lives without government collecting information on our every move. Living in a fishbowl may be safer, but it's not really living, either. Unless we put on the brakes, we are confronting a future where the government won't have to ask us for our papers to know who we are and where we go. It will just have to look at our faces.