Performance flogs Tampa facial tech

Although facial-recognition technology often raises privacy concerns, Tampa, Fla., officials' recent decision to jettison an experiment using surveillance cameras to electronically probe city streets for criminals had to do with performance, not privacy.

Tampa officials had planned to use cameras to match criminals' faces against a large criminal database. Their decision to drop the technology casts doubt on its future in the public arena, leaving Virginia Beach, Va., as the only U.S. municipality still using it.

Joseph Atick, president and chief executive officer of Identix Inc., which provided the software to both cities, said facial-recognition technology is not jeopardized. The company, however, will no longer market the software for that particular function.

Facial-recognition technology "has never been in a better position than it is right now," he said. "We are pursuing surveillance at security checkpoints, at border control areas. They think it is important for us to do the check to make sure people aren't on a watch list. But wide-area surveillance in the street is not an application we are pursuing."

Tampa, which scrapped the program in August, had been testing the technology for a couple of years in an 11-block section of the city. The pilot program sought to integrate the facial-recognition software with its 37 surveillance cameras, which still remain in place. During that period, however, the city did not have "one alert, one identification nor made one arrest as a result of the software," said Capt. Bob Guidara, the police department's spokesman.

"With a database of over 24,000 local wanted and missing persons, and not one alert, we're perplexed as to why that was the fact especially when this entertainment district was frequented on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights with crowds of 10,000 to 20,000" people, he said.

"We concluded that the software, at least in this environment or application, did not really serve any true benefit to us," Guidara said. "And rather than instill a false sense of security both with our officers and the public, we felt it was better to eliminate that application."

Atick suggested that Tampa's newly elected mayor, Pam Iorio, might have decided to discontinue the program given the privacy concerns that the system sparked.

Privacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have complained. Such technology, they have said, is unproven and its usage smacks of Big Brother tactics despite police department assurances that data collected on innocent pedestrians would not be stored but would be discarded immediately. Privacy groups said deploying more patrol officers would be more effective.

Guidara said the timing was coincidental. The contract with Identix that provided the city with free usage of the facial-recognition software was up for renewal. After an assessment with the police chief and consultation with the mayor, they decided against renewing it.

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Virginia Beach system continues

Tampa, Fla., officials have abandoned facial-recognition technology, but Virginia Beach, Va. officials have no plans to take down their system, said Lt. Dennis Santos, supervisor of the city's facial- recognition system.

Virginia Beach's system, which cost $200,000 in federal and city funds, has been operating since September 2002. It surveys a beachfront area. During summers, the city's normal population of 500,000 swells to 4 million. Although it has 13 surveillance cameras, the department linked the software to only three. The software scans against a database of about 600 records, which include local felony warrants, lost and runaway children and older individuals, and the FBI's 10 most wanted list and terrorist wanted list, Santos said. However, because of military call-ups of several officers, finding workers to man the system during the summer has been difficult. Normally, the system operates from 10 a.m. to midnight, he said. In the past year, Santos said the system has issued two alerts. One suspect did not turn out to be a match after officers interviewed him. In the second case, officers were unable to find the individual after being alerted by the system's operator of a very good match. Interviews are consensual and police officers first inform the individuals that they were chosen because they were matched by the city's facial-recognition system. Local law enforcement agencies and other groups across the country and in Canada have expressed interest in the system. Santos said eventually the city's database would expand, but never reach Tampa's large size.

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