- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2001

House Majority Leader Dick Armey and the American Civil Liberties Union say the proliferation of face-recognition surveillance technology represents a massive invasion of American privacy but its creators say the technology will be invaluable in the fight against crime.
Armey spokesman Richard Diamond yesterday said that the Texas Republican has asked Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, to study the extent to which the federal government is funding facial-recognition technologies.
And Mr. Diamond said his boss wants hearings on the technology and computer software that is under consideration by officials in Virginia Beach and in use by police in Tampa, Fla., which allows police to match the image of a person's face stored on a database with an image captured by cameras scanning crowds in public places.
"There is a big difference between technology that identifies you and technology that just looks," Mr. Diamond said. "The problem in Tampa or in Virginia Beach is that you have nowhere to hide. If you don't want Big Brother tracking your every move, you are out of luck."
Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the ACLU, said the face-identification software, known as FaceIt, by New Jersey-based Visionics Corp., is just the "newest thing" that invades Americans' private lives.
"This is the ability to remotely take a person's fingerprints," Mr. Willis said, noting that even if government doesn't have ill-intended purposes, the temptation for malfeasance is there and history has shown government to be the most egregious abuser of new technology.
But Visionics' president and chief executive officer, Joseph Atick, said scare tactics and hyperbole are being used to steer the public away from the true benefits of the software: catching criminals.
"This system is not tracking anyone. There is no evil intent going on," Mr. Atick said. "The only privacy being invaded is the privacy of criminals, because they are the ones in the database."
Mr. Atick said the Visionics software only helps police catch criminals by providing them with technology that matches the faces of known criminals found in public with the mug shots police already have on hand.
"This is not a mass-surveillance system. It's looking for specific, wanted criminals," Mr. Atick said, who noted the Visionics software has received a much warmer reception in England, where he says the software has helped knock the crime rate down by more than 30 percent.
In Tampa, where the software is getting its first workout, precautions are being taken to ensure technology will not be misused, Mr. Atick said. For instance, signs are posted, alerting persons that "Smart CCTV" is in use, the images in the database are those of known criminals only, and the non-matching images are discarded from the system once the comparison has been conducted.
Mr. Atick acknowledged that Mr. Armey and the ACLU have legitimate concerns about privacy, but said the Visionics software does not invade privacy any more than closed-circuit television cameras do now.
The ACLU's Mr. Willis strongly disagreed, saying that "the law has not caught up with the technology," and that government is taking advantage of that.
"[Governments] are banking on court precedents that say you don't have a right to privacy when you are in public," he said.
Tampa first began using the software that can "map" and identify 80 distinctive points on a face during last year's Super Bowl, when it was used on more than 100,000 unsuspecting people. According to documents from Visionics, it only takes 14 of those 80 points aligned with a photo in a database to make a match.
The oceanfront resort city of Virginia Beach is set to be the next stop for the technology, where police plan to use a $150,000 Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services grant to purchase the software. Police hope the technology can help them spot more than 2,500 area felons with outstanding warrants, as well as runaways and missing persons.
Tom Gordy, a spokesman for Rep. Ed Schrock, a Republican whose 1st Congressional District includes Virginia Beach, said Mr. Armey will get his boss' backing in trying to stop the software from spreading.
"It compromises the privacy of hundreds of thousands of people who walk along the boardwalk," Mr. Gordy said.
Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf, along with several other City Council members, have expressed strong displeasure with the prospect of software spying on not only residents, but some of the city's biggest taxpayers; namely, tourists.
"I see it as another invasion of privacy," Mrs. Oberndorf said. "Just because a few people misbehave doesn't mean all Americans should have to suffer" from a lack of privacy.
Public pressure is mounting, too, in Virginia Beach for the City Council to scrap the face-recognition software, according to several press accounts. The council, Mrs. Oberndorf said, will have to decide soon because the grant calls for Virginia Beach to provide $50,000 in matching funds.
Mrs. Oberndorf said some residents have told her they think the software will help keep criminals off the streets and are supportive of the new technology.
But Mrs. Oberndorf said the first concern of government in this case "is to respect people's privacy."
"This proposal [doesn't] seem to fit in our preservation in the sanctity of our person," Mrs. Oberndorf said.

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