Two years of controversial failure finally persuaded the Tampa Police Department to give up onfacial-recognition technology in Ybor City.
Published August 23, 2003
With some strong nudging by Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, the Tampa Police Department has decided to face facts. After two years, it is finally dumping a facial-recognition technology system that had been deployed in the entertainment district of Ybor City. The ostensibly ground-breaking technology was touted as a way to scan a crowd and tell the good guys from the bad. As it turns out, it couldn't differentiate the guys from the girls.
The department is ending the failed experiment because the Face-It software didn't lead to a single arrest. That is not to say the software didn't produce "matches," just that all the matches were false positives. According to Tampa police records, Face-It sometimes even matched a male face with a female identity.
The real question is why it took two years to call it quits. Just how much police time had to be wasted before before the department decided to turn off the cameras and get on with serious law enforcement efforts?
According to Cpt. Bob Guidara, spokesperson for the Tampa Police Department, the cost of the technology was "zero." He said the software was donated and the officer deployed to monitor the dozens of cameras would have been doing so anyway. But in fact, the Face-It system diverted substantial police resources.
On any given Friday night, about 125,000 people visit Ybor City. For facial comparisons to take place, an officer has to focus on an individual, scanning his or her face into the computer. The process takes time and diverts attention from more general surveillance, particularly if the system keeps spitting out false "matches."
From the start, it was clear this technology was not ready for prime time. Ever since it landed in Tampa with a dud during the 2001 Super Bowl, or "Snooper Bowl," experts have warned that all sorts of nuances can defeat the system, including sunglasses (gee, sunglasses in Florida?) and changes in facial hair. A 2000 report on face recognition technology by the National Institute of Standards and Technology said a mere 15-degree difference in position between the comparison photos will "adversely affect performance."
Private companies and government grants are pushing more biometric surveillance and identification, but not enough attention has been paid to the impact of these systems on privacy. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has received millions of dollars in federal grants to use facial-recognition systems and has deployed them at the airport, the jail visitation center and the courthouse. No public hearings occurred before all of us became facial-recognition guinea pigs.
We should be free to walk into public buildings and on public sidewalks without being subjected to an electronic line-up. As the technology improves, pressure will increase to utilize computer scanning and identity retrieval systems. But these methods go far beyond the cop on the beat. It is more like living in a fishbowl - a condition that might make us a bit safer, but sacrifices too much privacy.