- The Washington Times - Friday, September 13, 2002

In Virginia Beach, Va., police started a digital manhunt for criminals this week by pairing surveillance cameras with new identification technology.
It is the second U.S. city to hunt for fugitives by scanning public streets while software compares images of pedestrians captured on camera to digital versions of police photos.
Surveillance cameras have long been used on private property, from banks to airports, and their use in public spaces such as the National Mall is becoming more common.
Police in Virginia Beach and Tampa, Fla., the other city where this technology is used, see the cameras as a strong deterrent to criminals. But privacy advocates say combining surveillance devices with software to hunt for people walking in public places marks the erosion of freedom because it puts scores of innocent people in a digital lineup.
Public officials in Virginia Beach decided to use biometrics technology to identify people by using algorithms that measure faces, fingerprints and irises to help them locate criminals wanted there on outstanding felony warrants. That can improve safety in a city that attracts 3 million tourists a year, Virginia Beach Police Chief A.M. "Jake" Jacocks Jr. said.
The technology has not led to the arrest of any suspect in the United States. But advocates also see the cameras as a powerful deterrent.
"We may not even make an arrest as a result of using this technology," Chief Jacocks said. But "if it keeps criminals out of the resort area and keeps the resort area safe, then that's a success."
Police won't say where the cameras are, but the innocuous-looking globes hover above three busy intersections along Atlantic Avenue, the bustling center of the oceanfront community's tourist area. The cameras scan a face in less than a second and up to six images at once, Deputy Police Chief Gregory G. Mullen said.
Face-scanning software relies on biometrics to measure 80 facial features, from the distance between a person's eyes to the length of a person's face.
Police monitor images from the cameras at the police department's 2nd Precinct headquarters. An alarm sounds if a camera determines that at least 14 measurements match a digital photo. That signals that a potential suspect is on Atlantic Avenue. Officers will determine whether the match is valid by looking at surveillance video themselves. If they confirm the person matches the photo, an officer will be sent to question the person.
Police in Virginia Beach, a city of 425,000 people, have digital photos of 650 criminals in their database. But the hardware can store 30,000 digital photos. The department expects to work with other law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI, to search for fugitives and missing persons believed to be in Virginia Beach.
Kathleen Stant stood along Atlantic Avenue on Monday in view of one of the city's new high-tech cameras. While she took a picture of her husband, Vernon, Mrs. Stant didn't know police were able to take her picture and instantly compare it to the database of fugitives.
No one came for Mrs. Stant, but the technology still made her feel uneasy.
"It's kind of 1984-ish," said Mrs. Stant, referring to the novel of that name written by George Orwell about a futuristic society in which the government wields oppressive power over the people.
"I understand why people feel the need for it. But the concern is whether police abuse it," said Mrs. Stant, a 50-year-old Richmond resident who traveled to Virginia Beach for the day.
Police have tried to ease concerns.
Cameras scan scores of innocent people each minute, but police have said they won't store images in their database of people who don't match police photos. In addition, the computer system will only be accessible from the 2nd Precinct headquarters and isn't connected to the Internet, so it can't be hacked. A Citizen's Advisory Committee was appointed to audit the department's use of the technology.
Despite those measures, face-scanning software is new and inaccurate and could lead to false positives, when police stop innocent people mistakenly identified as suspects, said Kent Willis, head of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"We will be very concerned if false positives happen and people get arrested who shouldn't be," he said.
The software also is easily fooled, said Michael Thieme, director of special projects at private consulting firm International Biometric Group in New York.
"Changes in hairstyle and adding or taking off glasses can really change the accuracy. It shouldn't, but it does," Mr. Thieme said.
During a test of Virginia Beach's software, it accurately identified people 87 percent of the time during the day and at dusk, according to data released by the police department. At night it was accurate 75 percent of the time.
The Tampa Police Department has used the same biometric software since 2001 that Virginia Beach police are using.
Tampa created a stir during the 2001 Super Bowl dubbed the Snooper Bowl by privacy advocates when it secretly used the software to scan crowds for suspected criminals.
There is concern that police are overreacting because of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
"Have we become a crime center all of the sudden? This is very scary technology, and I am concerned about an abusive, intrusive government," said Robert K. Dean, spokesman for the Virginia Beach Libertarian Party and the Virginia Beach Taxpayers Alliance.
But the debate in Virginia Beach over face-scanning technology did change after the attacks. Federal law-enforcement officials notified Virginia Beach police that two hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi were in the city in February 2001 and April 2001.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide