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Face scans match few suspects

The software employed at Super Bowl has had limited success, yet Pinellas' Sheriff's Office got millions to use it.

By LISA GREENE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001


LARGO -- Just days after the Super Bowl, Tom Colatosti went on the air. He explained to thousands of radio listeners how his company, Viisage Technologies, provided the software that studied the faces of thousands of fans who attended the big game and compared them to police databases of criminal suspects, even pictures of terrorists.

And he touted his software's effectiveness. "There were a number of arrests," he said.

None of them was made using Viisage.

In truth, the technology that prompted Tampa's recent Super Bowl to be dubbed the "Snooper Bowl" has experienced limited success.

That didn't stop U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young from delivering $3.5-million to the Pinellas Sheriff's Office based on the promise that Viisage's software would be able to sift through driver's license photographs in hopes of finding the identity of wanted suspects.

Had Young's aides researched such electronic sleuthing, they would have discovered the U.S. Department of Justice gave $250,000 to the Santa Ana (Calif.) Police Department to use a similar brand of face-recognition software made by a different company. How many arrests in four years has the department made using it?

None.

Thirty miles north of Santa Ana, deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department experienced a bit more success. They made one arrest, but that was four years ago, and those who remember it dismiss the collar as blind luck.

And, spot checks across the United States by the Times show that face-recognition computers have worked in some situations but never to the degree the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office told the U.S. government it will use them.

So why did Young's office steer more than $3-million in taxpayer money to Pinellas County?

"When the local law enforcement folks call for help, he tries to help them out," said Young spokesman Harry Glenn. "That's what his job is, and that's what he did."

* * *

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office pays Tom Peter to understand technology. As computer services manager, it's his job to ensure the software and hardware that serve the office's 2,600 employees work with precision.

In the summer of 1999, Peter got a telephone call.

It was from the Lafayette Group, a Beltway lobbying and consulting firm that has represented multi-million dollar companies like Unisys.

"I didn't know who the group was," Peter said. "I had no idea who they were working for, other than themselves."

But he liked what the firm had to say. There was money available for a new computer technology that could match pictures of people's faces. The sheriff might be able to get the money if he wrote Rep. Young.

"The way I understood it, the funding would come to us at no cost for the Sheriff's Office," Peter said. "Who would turn that down?

"Not us."

In Tallahassee, Buddy Phillips, the executive director of the Florida Sheriff's Association, had gotten a similar call from Chuck DeWitt, a partner in the Lafayette Group and an expert on Justice grants. In the early 1990s, he directed the National Institute of Justice, the department's research arm.

DeWitt said he called Phillips to drum up business. His firm had handled other face-recognition technology projects, and he wanted it known that LaFayette would hunt down federal money if it could just find someone to take it.

So how did Pinellas County enter the picture? Phillips says he's pretty sure DeWitt suggested using the county.

"I'm assuming that's because congressman Young was very interested in that program," he said. "But that's an assumption."

DeWitt says it was Phillips' idea. The grant calls for its recipient to work with other police agencies. The Sheriff's Office had a history of doing this well, Dewitt said.

The fact Young lives in Pinellas County played no role. "From our perspective, I can't imagine why anybody would question anything about the process," DeWitt said.

Sheriff Everett Rice had a different take. He said his office won the grant because of its success in using high-tech tools.

"If we didn't have a background in law enforcement technology, congressman Young wouldn't have picked us," Rice told the Times. "The fact that he brought it home is coincidence."

After saying this, and with his office filled with three of his top managers, Rice smiled and began to laugh.

* * *

The software is best known nationally now because it was used at the Super Bowl in a demonstration project. No one was arrested, but listeners to WFLA-AM 970's morning show can be forgiven if they thought Viisage had produced a remarkable result.

In a recent telephone interview, Colatosti apologized if he "was unclear on that."

By using Viisage software, police matched 19 people's faces to photos of people arrested in the past for minor pickpocketing, fraud and other charges. They weren't charged with any game-day misdeeds.

Still, matching 19 faces was "far beyond our expectations," Colatosti said.

Tampa's computers contained pictures of 1,700 criminals, including suspected abortion-clinic and Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph.

Officers were pleased with the software test and may consider buying the technology someday, said spokesman Joe Durkin. But he admitted that police can't say for sure the matches were correct, because they didn't pursue anyone and confirm an identity.

"We feel confident they were correct matches, but until we take it to the next level, and do the conventional stop, you can never be 100 percent sure," he said.

Still, what happened at the Super Bowl indicates where face-recognition technology actually stands today. It may have promise, but the technology is far from proven.

In Wisconsin, state prison officials have contracted to use Viisage to promote prison security. In Illinois, state officials are testing the technology to compare drivers photos to prevent license fraud. Casinos use it to find known cheaters among their gamblers.

But in Massachusetts, state welfare officials have suspended their use of Viisage face-recognition after four years of free use, 15 matches and no arrests. They say they aren't sure if it's worth it.

So far, police investigative uses have faced more obstacles. Trent DePersia, who oversaw the Santa Ana grant as director of high-tech research for a Justice Department division, is a face-recognition fan. But he couldn't name an agency that has made a street arrest using it.

In Santa Ana, Capt. Dan McCoy thinks his department's program has potential. But it's not exactly a magic wand.

"It's another tool," he said. "You don't want to say this is the answer to everything."

In Los Angeles County and Santa Ana, the program works this way: Employees feed computers a photo or composite drawing of a criminal suspect. It measures the person's face: the distance between the eyes, the angle of the cheekbones, the thickness of the lips. It compares measurements to those in its database of photos and spits out the closest matches.

Los Angeles investigators were learning to use the system in 1997 when they decided to run a composite drawing of a carjacking suspect through their database -- and came out with a suspect who later pleaded guilty.

Since then, police have expanded the database to include 500,000 jail booking photos. But they've arrested no one else.

Neither agency uses the same software that Pinellas plans to use, but they said the software isn't the problem. Ragged, angled, video camera pictures of store holdups and composite pictures drawn, even by computer, from witnesses' memories are rarely recognizable enough to work, they said.

"The technology has its limitations, obviously," DePersia said.

* * *

Nevertheless, those limitations did not deter Rice's office from pursuing or Young's office from delivering the $3.5-million.

No one at the Sheriff's Office checked with police investigators using the technology before asking Young for grant money. Nor could anyone there explain when Viisage became involved in the project. Last month, the Lafayette Group helped write the federal grant "application" the Sheriff's Office submitted to the Justice Department.

In that document, the Sheriff's Office said that Viisage and its partner, Unisys Corp., was the only group capable of handling the job and asked that other companies not be allowed to compete in providing the Sheriff's Office the technology.

The tie between Viisage and Lafayette is less than coincidental. Viisage signed a contract with Lafayette in September 1999 that promised the lobbying firm a percentage of any contract it got for Viisage, Colatosti and DeWitt said.

How LaFayette went about getting those contracts was left to the lobbying firm, Colatosti said. "We're just some simple old techno-geeks up here."

Meanwhile, staff members in Young's office did not check whether other law enforcement agencies were successful in using face-recognition programs the way Pinellas County plans to use it. That measure of research, said Young spokesman Harry Glenn, is best left to locals seeking federal money.

Young "has to rely to some degree on (the local agency's) expertise in that field," Glenn said.

Rice said he's convinced the technology will succeed as an investigative tool and help the department by providing a new video jail-booking system and identifying jail prisoners more quickly. He said the department is now researching the technology and could still switch to another company or drop the plan to search driver's license photos.

"If we get into this and it looks like it doesn't work," he said, "we can give the money back."

How the grant was won is a familiar story for Peter Eisner, managing director of the Center for Public Integrity, a non-partisan Washington watchdog.

"Unfortunately, this is standard operating procedure in Washington," he said. "It runs on power and money and only incidently on what may benefit the public."

Frances Zelazny, spokeswoman for New Jersey based Visionics Corp., was surprised to hear that Pinellas County contended that only Viisage was capable of providing face-recognition technology.

"We are the most widely deployed facial recognition engine in law enforcement and booking systems to date," she said.

Eisner said grant funds earmarked by members of Congress, as this money was, are especially likely to be political pay back or local pork. He questioned whether Pinellas was contacted purely by coincidence.

"Let's see how many people believe that out of 435 districts, congressman Young's would be the district where this takes place," he said.

- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and John Martin contributed to this report.

Recent coverage

Cameras scanned fans for criminals (January 31, 2001)

Licensed drivers at risk (December 23, 2000)

All drivers may appear in digital lineups (December 22, 2000)

Related links

Viisage Technology website

How facial recognition works

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