- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Government agencies have spent more than $50 million during the past five years developing camera surveillance technology, and proposed federal spending on such systems has increased since September 11, according to a recent report released by the General Accounting Office.
The GAO surveyed 35 government agencies from July 2001 to January 2002 at the request of House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, who requested the report last summer after seeing spending increases for automated traffic cameras and facial recognition technology.
Facial recognition research and development made up more than 90 percent of federal surveillance budgets since 1997.
Of the 35 agencies the GAO surveyed, "17 reported obligating $51 million to [red-light, photo radar and biometric camera surveillance] as of June 2001, with the largest amount reported for facial recognition technology."
Two agencies reported promoting the use of the surveillance devices but did not report spending any money on them, the report said. The State Department, for instance, did not devote any money to deploying facial recognition as of June 20, 2001, but said it "planned to work with the Bureau of Consular Affairs to integrate the devices into its counterterrorism database" this year.
Though the report did not include figures for this year's budget, several agencies predicted that proposed surveillance spending would rise.
"Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, federal interest in facial recognition technology as a security measure appears to have increased," the report states.
Biometric devices use human characteristics such as retinal scans, fingerprint imaging and facial and vocal recognition to verify individuals entering secured areas.
Mr. Armey has long been an opponent of government surveillance of American citizens.
"We wanted to get a sense of how much funding has been there since the beginning," said Richard Diamond, Mr. Armey's spokesman.
Mr. Diamond said the general public first learned of facial recognition after the software was used during the 2001 Super Bowl. But the report said funding requests for biometric security devices were first made 15 years ago. Federal funding for photo-radar devices first showed up nearly 30 years ago.
"The first reported obligations for facial recognition technology were by the [Department of] Defense in fiscal year 1987," the report said.
The report also said the first funding requests for photo-radar cameras came from the Navy in 1974. But no one seems to recall why the Navy wanted the devices or what they planned to do with them.
The Defense and Justice departments have spent more money than the other agencies combined on facial recognition since 1997, according to the report.
While most of the money spent has been for development and research, very little has been used to deploy facial recognition technology in government facilities.
Katie Corrigan, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said part of the reason the government has not fully committed to using facial recognition is that "the technology is ineffective and fallible."
"Several government studies have found, including a National Institute for Standards in Technology [report], that the technology has a high number of false negatives."
She said the National Institute study found that after faces were inserted into a database for 18 months, 43 percent of all scans turned up false negatives.
Mr. Armey said his goal in requesting the report was to spark public debate on the growth of government surveillance and the erosion of civil liberties Americans take for granted.
"We wanted to raise awareness of the issue, and we were successful now that other members [of Congress] have taken up the cause," Mr. Diamond said.
The Washington Times reported in March that Rep. Constance A. Morella, chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District, said it's up to legislatures to limit law enforcement agencies' growing use of surveillance technology.
Mrs. Morella, Maryland Republican, said in a March 22 subcommittee hearing that the use of cameras for security and traffic enforcement were outpacing federal laws and advancing without the necessary public debate.
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting representative in Congress, said the fact that several federal officials from the Office of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, FBI, U.S. Capitol Police and Secret Service, among others, did not show up to testify before the subcommittee was "unjustifiable."


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