Wednesday, August 20, 2003

A Florida police department is scrapping a program of high-tech, facial-recognition cameras after it failed to produce any arrests.

The two-year test program produced “zip,” said Capt. Bob Guidara, spokesman for the Tampa Police Department.

“There was not one identification or an arrest attributable to the software package,” he said.

The cameras were used at the 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa to scour the crowds for wanted criminals and were picked up later that year for use in the night-life district of Ybor City.

The technology is designed to identify humans using biometrics as they pass through the camera’s field of view, and to monitor the specific areas in real time. Pictures captured by the camera are compared with a database of more than 30,000 mug shots of wanted criminals.

The technology has been under fire from civil liberty groups, which said the cameras constitute an invasion of privacy. The program’s demise in Tampa was “good news,” said Cedric Laurant, policy counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“It’s just not reliable. The technology was not effective and it was error-ridden,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union also strongly opposed the program and engaged in negotiations with the police department to end the testing.

“Whether it’s ever going to be ready for prime time as a method for remote surveillance, well, it’s certainly not ready now,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s program on technology and liberty. “It’s been a colossal failure.”

Darlene Williams, chairman of ACLU’s Greater Tampa Chapter, told the Associated Press that she was relieved at the scrapping of the system.

“Any time you have this sort of technology on public streets, you are subjecting people who come to Ybor to an electronic police lineup without any kind of probable cause.”

As a test city, Tampa paid no fees or costs for the program, which was created by Identix Inc. A company spokeswoman did not return a call for comment.

“We’re at a loss,” Capt. Guidara said of the program’s failure. “In test scenarios of the system, there was an over 80 percent reliability factor. But in two years, not one hit, not one positive identification.”

“It does not seem to have been a benefit for us,” he said.

Virginia Beach’s police department is the only other in the country using the Identix technology. Police spokesman Mike Carey said the system is “working just fine,” but no arrests have been made since the technology was put into operation last summer.

“We never set as a criteria for success or failure whether an arrest is made. It’s a tool to help us do our job,” said Greg Mullen, Virginia Beach deputy police chief. “The system could go forever and not make an arrest because a wanted person did not walk in front of the camera.”

The District has cameras throughout the city capable of running the facial-recognition software, but city officials said they have no plans to implement the program.

Mr. Laurant, however, said that could change.

“They are not planning to use it now, but they could do it later.”

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