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Ybor cameras won't seek what they never found

After two years of fruitless monitoring, Tampa is dropping facial-recognition software that looked for crooks. It never led to a single arrest.

By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 20, 2003

TAMPA - In the end, everyone the secret cameras scanned turned out to be just another face in the crowd.

Two years after Tampa became the nation's first city to use facial-recognition software to search for wanted criminals, officials are dropping the program.

It led to zero arrests.

"I wouldn't consider it a failure," said police spokesman Joe Durkin. "You are always looking for new and efficient ways to provide the best service to the community. There's going to be ups and downs."

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment about the practice.

The city first toyed with the technology during the 2001 Super Bowl, when surveillance cameras monitored people entering Raymond James Stadium.

That led critics to dub the game, "Snooper Bowl." And although cameras picked up 19 "hits," or possible matches with wanted criminals, none were arrested.

That June, New Jersey-based Visionics Corp. offered the city a free trial use of a similar program called Face-It, and the software was installed on 36 cameras in the Ybor City entertainment district.

A Tampa police officer in a room three blocks away monitored a wall of televisions and, with a click, could pick out faces from the crowd to scan and run through a criminal database to search for matches.

Even as the software proved unsuccessful in nabbing wanted offenders, it did a superb job of attracting outrage from critics.

Republican Dick Armey, the House Majority Leader at the time, called for congressional hearings on the controversial surveillance technology.

Leaders from the American Civil Liberties Union denounced the practice, likening it to something out of George Orwell's novel 1984.

Scores of protesters donned bandanas, masks and Groucho Marx glasses and took to the streets of Ybor City on a busy Saturday night to show their contempt for the face-scanning system.

The software also created false alarms, faces that seemed to match but didn't. In at least one instance, both police and a Tampa man ended up embarrassed.

Rob Milliron, then 32, wound up on a surveillance camera one day while at lunch in Ybor City. Tampa police used his photo to demonstrate the system to local news media.

A woman in Tulsa, Okla., saw his picture and fingered him as her ex-husband who was wanted on felony child neglect charges. Three police officers showed up at Milliron's construction job site, asking if he was a wanted man.

Turns out he had never married, never had kids, never even been to Oklahoma.

"They made me feel like a criminal," Milliron said at the time.

Critics of Face-It celebrated on Tuesday, saying that the Millirons of the world can finally walk down the street without fear of humiliation.

"It's a relief," said Darlene Williams, chairwoman of the Greater Tampa Chapter of the ACLU. "Any time you have this sort of technology on public streets, you are subjecting people who come to Ybor to an electronic police lineup, without any kind of probable cause. The whole episode was very troubling."

Scanning companies such as Visionics and Identix (which since have merged and are known as Identix) saw their stocks soar in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

But the technology's success in actually catching wanted criminals or terrorists has apparently been marginal. Critics claim it is unreliable and ineffective, and potential customers such as the Palm Beach International Airport have passed on the equipment after test runs, saying it gave too many false positives and wasn't cost-effective.

The company could not be reached for comment.

Durkin emphasized Tuesday that the trial run with Face-It didn't cost the city any money. But even so, he said, its use likely benefited the city.

"Something that's intangible is how many wanted persons avoided (Ybor City) because the cameras were there," he said. "That's something we may never calculate."

Durkin said even without the face-recognition software, the cameras in Ybor will remain.

Meanwhile, facial-recognition technology has been in use at the airport, jail and jail visitation center in Pinellas County for more than a year, and at the courthouse since late April. And Pinellas sheriff's officials have no plans to discard it, although they have not attributed any arrests to the technology.

Pinellas sheriff's Lt. James Main, who heads the program for Sheriff Everett Rice, said Rice's office is confident the technology works well and is a useful security tool, despite the lack of arrests.

"We don't have any plans to change anything here," Main said. "The fact that we aren't making arrests doesn't mean the technology isn't working."

He said Tampa's use of the technology is far different than in Pinellas. In Tampa, the technology isn't used in a controlled environment like the inside of a well-lighted courthouse, where people can be asked to take off hats and glasses.

Rather, he said city officials across the bay gambled on the ability to pick faces out of a crowd:

"To Tampa's credit, they were trying something new."

- Times researcher John Martin and staff writers William Levesque and David Karp contributed to this report, which used information from Times archives.

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