- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

RICHMOND A bill that would have required a judge's approval to use facial-recognition software was shelved yesterday by a Senate panel, leaving localities unchecked in implementing the technology.
Virginia Beach plans to start using the software to find felons and runaways beginning May 31, but House Majority Leader Delegate H. Morgan Griffith said better safeguards are needed to ensure the technology is not abused.
"The technology scares me," Mr. Griffith, Salem Republican and sponsor of the bill, told the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.
Mr. Griffith said the databases used to identify felons and criminals have expanded to such a degree that police could conceivably do full background checks on every face that comes before a camera linked to the facial-recognition software.
"You are crossing the line of privacy," Mr. Griffith said. "These databases are going to explode."
The panel voted 11-4 to refer the measure to the State Crimes Commission.
Mr. Griffith said the bill will come up during next year's General Assembly session. It passed the House of Delegates three weeks ago in a 74-25 vote.
Small and large localities across Virginia will be able to use technology without any guidelines from the state, Mr. Griffith said, though he commended Virginia Beach for enacting policies and procedures that make it difficult to abuse the technology and limit the databases it can access.
Virginia Beach is the second city in the country to use the technology, after Tampa, Fla. It is made by New Jersey-based Visionics, and Virginia Beach paid about $200,000 for the software, $150,000 of which came from a state grant.
No other Virginia localities have facial-recognition software, and current guidelines say public hearings have to be held before the technology can be implemented.
Mr. Griffith said surveillance cameras have proliferated recently, and cited the rooftop cameras installed in the District after September 11. His bill, he said, would curb that proliferation.
But the chairman of the committee, Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, said he did not see anything wrong with the technology.
"Why should we want to limit law enforcement's access to those databases?" asked Mr. Stolle, a Republican from Virginia Beach and former police officer there.
Mr. Stolle said the facial-recognition technology enables police to instantly match criminals to databases that contain their criminal records.
"It's public record," Mr. Stolle said.
Mr. Griffith responded that the technology is ripe for abuse.
"It's public record, but somebody's got to go looking for it," he said.
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, said anyone in a public place that may be monitored by a camera is not entitled to privacy.
"The government has the ability right now to track every single movement" of a person when he is in public, Mr. Saslaw said.
Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Horan said Mr. Griffith's bill assumes that people are entitled to privacy when they are in public. He also said the bill could limit authorities' ability to catch suspected terrorists and other dangerous criminals.
Currently, police don't need a reason to monitor public places; the legislation might result in their having to argue probable cause.
Mr. Griffith said his bill would actually make it easier for law enforcement authorities in localities using the technology to add or delete certain databases such as the FBI's most wanted because a judge could quickly grant approval.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is one of many groups opposed to the software, said in a recent statement that the technology leaves too much to chance.
"Facial-recognition technology carries the danger that its use will evolve into a widespread tool for spying on American citizens as they move about in public places," the statement read.
"If the technology promised a significant increase in protection against terrorism, it would be important to evaluate its dangers and benefits in depth,"the ACLU continued.
"But that conversation is beside the point when face recognition has been shown to be so unreliable as to be useless for important security applications."


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