- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2002

RICHMOND You're walking down the street, unaware that a camera is taking your picture and feeding the image to a government computer.
You've become an unwitting participant in what amounts to a high-tech police lineup.
Far-fetched scenario from a science fiction novel?
Hardly, says Delegate H. Morgan Griffith, Salem, Va., Republican. Facial recognition technology is here, and its use is likely to grow as the government seeks more weapons for its war on terrorism.
"Authorities could use this technology to track people wherever they go," Mr. Griffith said. "That's scary."
Concerned about erosion of individual liberties, Mr. Griffith proposed legislation requiring a locality to get a circuit court judge's permission to use facial recognition software. The applicant would have to justify its need for the technology. The court order would be good for 90 days.
"Without a law on the books to control this, the government can do most anything," said Mr. Griffith. "It seems a lot like Big Brother to me."
Similar concerns have been voiced in the District of Columbia, where police started using surveillance cameras for crowd control during the International Monetary Fund and World Bank protests in April 2000, and photo-radar cameras to catch speeding motorists in August.
Virginia's House of Delegates has passed Mr. Griffith's bill. Its next stop is the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, chaired by Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, a former Virginia Beach police detective. Virginia Beach has received a $150,000 state grant to become the second city in the nation, after Tampa, Fla., to use the technology.
"I think the bill is totally unnecessary," Mr. Stolle said. "I can't tell you how many stakeouts I went on with a photo of the person we were looking for. This technology just allows them to do the same thing with a computer."
Virginia Beach Police Chief Jake Jacocks has been lobbying for the defeat of Mr. Griffith's bill, which would take effect July 1 about the time Virginia Beach hopes to have its system running.
"This is not Big Brother watching you," Chief Jacocks said in an interview. "If anything, it's Big Brother watching out for you."
Here's how the Virginia Beach system will work: Ten cameras along the resort strip will scan faces and create a "map" of 80 distinctive points, such as the distance between facial features. The images will be fed to a computer and sorted against a database containing mug shots of thousands of runaways and people wanted by police.
If at least 14 of the 80 points match, an officer monitoring the computer screen will radio an officer on the street for further action.
"We have over 2,500 outstanding felony warrants," Chief Jacocks said. "We need to get these people off the streets and into court. To me, this technology is no different than an officer standing on the street corner with a 'Wanted' flier."
But Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia, says there is a big difference.
"The first concern is the ever-increasing ability of government to spy on innocent people," he said. "No matter how you look at it, this is a camera owned by the government taking pictures of you. In that sense, it has Big Brother written all over it."
Chief Jacocks said those concerns are misplaced. Signs will inform people about the cameras, and images will be kept only long enough to scan them against the mug shots in the database, he said.
"If your picture is not in there, your image is destroyed. It would be of virtually no use to us," Chief Jacocks said.
However, some localities could impose more draconian policies without some judicial oversight to hold their crime-fighting and anti-terrorism zeal in check, Mr. Griffith said.
The Metropolitan Police Department plans to link hundreds of cameras already in place around the city and install dozens more. It has operated 12 cameras near federal buildings and monuments around the Mall since September 11.
The chairman of a House subcommittee on the District said she will hold a hearing on the citywide surveillance system being developed by D.C. police because she is worried about encroachments on civil liberties.
"I am holding this hearing out of my concern that the pendulum between security and privacy is beginning to swing too far in one direction," said Rep. Constance A. Morella, Maryland Republican, who heads the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District.
She said she will hear testimony in the near future to examine the District's efforts to create the nation's largest network of surveillance cameras, which would be able to monitor shopping areas, schools, subway stations and federal buildings around the city.
Mr. Willis agrees with the direction Mr. Griffith's bill is taking.
"At least this bill attempts to limit the use of the technology and make certain there's a rationale for when it's used," he said. "We live in a time when we are searching for quick and easy solutions to create at least an illusion of safety. We're probably poised for an explosion of technical devices that presumably help promote security."
Facial recognition technology has been used for years in the private sector, particularly by casinos, to identify known gambling cheats. It first gained widespread public attention when it was used at the 2001 Super Bowl, which critics of the technology renamed the "Snooper Bowl."
Some airports are beginning to use the systems. Airports and seaports are exempt from Mr. Griffith's bill.
Olympic organizers considered using the face-scanning system to screen crowds for suspected terrorists and criminals in Salt Like City, but they decided against it, saying the technology is unproven.
Chief Jacocks said Virginia Beach officials began researching the technology two years ago and solicited comment from civic organizations and the public.
The organizations agreed to help develop the department's policy governing the surveillance system, he said.
"We've gone to great lengths to not only make sure our community is comfortable with this, but also to get them involved in the guidelines and allow them some oversight," Chief Jacocks said.
If the General Assembly wants safeguards, he said, it should scrap the judicial review and pass legislation requiring other localities to follow the Virginia Beach model for public involvement.
Chief Jacocks and Mr. Stolle said that while Mr. Griffith's bill would not sink the Virginia Beach program, it would create unnecessary obstacles.
"It clearly is an impediment," Mr. Stolle said. "It's almost as strict as what you have to do to get a wiretap, and the reason that's not easy is because a wiretap is an invasion of privacy. There's no invasion of privacy here."

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