Officials to vote on face-scan system at airport
By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
Before Sept. 11, Commission Chairman Barbara Sheen Todd probably would have opposed scanning the faces of passengers at St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport.
But when a proposal to do that comes to commissioners today, Todd says she'll vote yes.
"Nobody in their wildest nightmares could have dreamed this would happen," she said. "At this point in time, I believe we have a responsibility to protect the passengers who fly out of our airport."
Most commissioners agree with her. Two other commissioners have said that they want to make sure some safeguards are taken, but that they're ready to approve a system that would compare images of boarding passengers with a database of criminal fugitives and suspected terrorists.
"Only the bad guys need to be worried," said Commissioner Ken Welch. "I think the flying public will feel safer. I really do."
A fourth commissioner, Susan Latvala, won't be at today's meeting but said she supports the plan. Latvala flew to Tallahassee Monday and said that a security guard made her remove her jacket and shoes and patted her down.
"It's better than what we're doing today," Latvala said of the cameras. "By the time I gather my bags, they know whether there's a match and I go on my way."
The technology created a firestorm after it was used at last year's Super Bowl. Cameras used to scan partygoers on the streets of Ybor City continues to draw criticism.
Civil liberties groups and privacy advocates say the technology hasn't been shown to work and could mistake innocent citizens for criminals.
But Sheriff Everett Rice, who supports using the technology, said installing the cameras at the airport is different.
"One of the most difficult things is that it's been stigmatized by other jurisdictions' use of it," he said. "I'm not going to criticize what they're doing, but that's not what we're doing."
Scanning the faces of airport passengers is a more restricted use, Rice said.
"I certainly don't believe anybody has an expectation of privacy in their facial image when they're getting ready to board an airline," Rice said. "If they can make you take your clothes off and shake you down, certainly we can check your facial image against known criminals."
A handful of airports around the country are using or preparing to use the technology. Fresno, Oakland and San Francisco airports in California, as well as Boston's Logan International Airport and the Palm Beach International Airport are among them, according to newspaper reports.
Rice, the airport and ATA, the airline that operates security checkpoints at the airport, have an agreement ready for commissioners to approve today. The technology used would be run by Viisage, Inc., the same company working with the Sheriff's Office on a federal grant that the office won last year with the help of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo.
Cameras would operate at both of the airport's magnetometers, Rice said. As passengers go through the scanner, they would be asked to look at the camera. The camera would take an image, and then a computer would compare that to a database of photos.
If no match is found, the image would be discarded immediately, Rice said. Todd said that was one of the key questions she had. She didn't want the county keeping records on who was traveling where.
Photos of known fugitives and suspected terrorists would be in the database, Rice said. It also might include mug shots from Pinellas County arrests. Those details are still being worked out, Rice said, but he hopes to have the system operating within a month.
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