As St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport begins to scan faces, fliers say security trumps concerns about invasion of privacy.
By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2002
Lois Morris looked into a camera monitor Thursday at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and decided she was having a bad hair day.
But she didn't worry about the scanning camera invading her privacy.
"I think it's great," she said. "I didn't mind it at all. They should do this everywhere."
Morris knows more than she'd like to about what terrorists can do.
On Sept. 11, American Airlines Flight 77 buried itself in the Pentagon office of Morris' son.
For five long hours that day, Morris prayed in her Clearwater home, not knowing that her son had the day off, not knowing that he was safe.
So if anybody wants to scan Morris' face to make sure she's not a terrorist, that's just fine with her.
Few passengers whose faces were scanned Thursday have had such a close brush with terrorism. But two dozen of them echoed Morris' feelings on the first day the airport used the scanners.
Anything that makes flying safer, they said.
Only criminals should have a problem.
And besides, it only takes a few seconds.
"I'd rather scan my face than have them hold the body wand," said Ginger Perkins, moments after security guards had waved the wand all over her. "That makes you feel like you're a criminal. But for security, whatever they have to do is good."
By late Thursday, the airport's two cameras, one posted at each security checkpoint, just past the magnetometer, had scanned 600 to 800 faces.
The biggest problem: following directions. Many people looked at security guards or up in the air -- anywhere but into the camera monitor. A computer repeated instructions until people complied, looking straight ahead for a few seconds as their image was checked against a database of some 500 photos of terrorists and fugitives.
Then they moved on. Most were waved over with body wands and patted down. Many had to remove belts, take off shoes or open bags, all of which took longer than the face scanner.
By late afternoon, the scanners had identified only one possible match.
Deputies realized within a few minutes that the man wasn't the one in the database, said Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice. But when they checked the man's ID, they discovered he had an outstanding DUI warrant in Canada. Deputies detained him for about 10 minutes, determined that the DUI wasn't serious enough to hold him, and he got on his flight.
"I was amazed at how smoothly it went," Rice said. "There were no complaints and no delays. I'm sure there'll be things that come up ... but I was really happy."
It was Rice's idea to put the scanners in the airport, making it one of the nation's first airports to use them on passengers. His office received a $3.5-million federal grant in December 2000 to use the face recognition technology to overhaul the county jail's booking photos and help with police investigations.
The technology sparked controversy after it was used to scan the crowds at last year's Super Bowl and after Tampa police began using it to watch Ybor City visitors. Civil liberties advocates say the scanners invade privacy, risk false arrests and have no proven track record. They point out that the technology has netted few arrests -- none at the Super Bowl, none in Ybor City.
At the county-owned airport Thursday, Jackie Frost and her friend Frank Wright were among the few who objected to the cameras.
"I hate it," said Frost, 23, before boarding a flight to Chicago. "I don't like my movements being tracked. I'm not flying anymore after today because of the security hassle."
"It's Big Brother," agreed Wright.
Fellow Chicago-bound traveler Sandra Ford of Sarasota had a different view. She smiled at the scanner and said passengers need to complain less and cooperate more.
"Whatever they put in place to protect the public is a wonderful thing," Ford said. "We all should be agreeable to anything and everything."
Twelve-year-old Ashley Hackstock has been scared to fly since Sept. 11. So Ashley, who wore a red T-shirt Thursday declaring her an "American girl," was glad to see the scanners.
"I feel much safer," she said. "Once you start flying again, and you see all the security, it wipes away the fear."