A Times Editorial
Experimental technology intended to identify fugitives on the sidewalks of Ybor City raises practicalas well as constitutional concerns.
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 3, 2001
Young people go to Ybor City to be checked out. But not the way Tampa police are doing it.
Tampa police have connected special face-recognition software called Face-It to the 36 cameras already set up in Centro Ybor and along E Seventh Avenue. Ostensibly, the new crime-fighting tool allows police to capture people's images and compare their faces with those in a database of known fugitives. Tampa police are testing the system to see whether to purchase it for $30,000.
This experimental technology may sound familiar. It was tried earlier this year at the Super Bowl in Tampa -- a game dubbed "Snooper Bowl" as a result. That experiment, with surveillance cameras trained on people entering the stadium, was a rousing failure. Of the 19 so-called "hits," none led to an arrest.
Once a person's face is fed into the computer, the software analyzes 80 points in the region of a person's eyes and nose and compares the results to images of wanted criminals. If the resemblance is strong, the computer issues an alert. Officers on the ground then can be dispatched to interrogate that person to see if he or she is a fugitive.
As you might expect, there is serious doubts about whether this technology works. Software of this type has been tested in other cities without much success. Beyond that, there could very well be constitutional problems when police demand that law-abiding fun-seekers in Ybor answer questions and identify themselves solely on the basis of a Face-It match.
We also are uncomfortable with the incrementalism of this technology. Conspicuous outside cameras first were used to deter breaches of the peace in public spaces. Now they are being used as an investigative tool that records your presence and can potentially identify who you are.
Over time, these devices will inevitably become more sophisticated. The result could be a chilling specter: They could be used in high-crime areas to watch for and identify anyone who doesn't live or work in the neighborhood. Or the database could be expanded to include all Floridians so police know precisely who is out in public, when and with whom.
None of this is far-fetched. The Pinellas County Sheriff's office will soon be using face-recognition software to sift through the state's drivers license photographs, looking for criminals. It will effectively turn all our license photos into mug shots.
This technology might make us feel more protected from criminals, but how will it make us feel about our government? Sometimes, giving up a little security to protect our privacy is a reasonable trade-off.
Face-recognition has not been particularly effective in crime-fighting because it is unproven science. That is reason enough not to rush into a plan to use it. But when and if there comes a time that the software is perfected and remote identifications can be made accurately, the government should put it down and walk away.