Experience with cameras, facial recognition shows limits to catching terrorists
Closed-circuit television systems installed throughout Great Britain to catch terrorists have proven useful for watching groups of unruly teenagers in shopping malls, prostitutes plying their trade in side streets and couples having sex in parked cars.
But so far, they haven't helped catch any terrorists, Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, said in an address to a forum on privacy and surveillance technology last month.
The British have grown accustomed to having their faces photographed dozens of times a day — at airports and bus stops, at shopping centers and on street corners, as they drive, walk, board trains or chat with friends.
During the past seven years, closed-circuit TV cameras have popped up everywhere, said Rosen, who traveled to several British cities to see how well the monitoring system works. It is highly invasive, but questionably effective, he said.
With growing support in the United States for installing cameras and using facial-recognition software to increase security, Rosen and others warn that the systems substantially harm civil liberties without doing much to improve safety.
In Britain, Rosen found that "voyeur.istic and discriminatory surveillance" was common. Bored camera operators spent hours zooming in on attractive women or focusing on men with dark complexions. But the cameras and their operators have found few criminals and no terrorists, he said.
Meanwhile, software designed to match license plate numbers of cars on the street with databases of cars wanted in crimes was prone to making erroneous matches.
Britain began installing closed- circuit TV systems in London to calm public anxiety in the wake of terrorist bombings by the Irish Republican Army in 1993 and 1994. The United States, Rosen fears, may be on the verge of following the same path.
After terrorists hijacked four air.liners from three airports and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and in Pennsylvania Sept. 11, interest has increased in technology that seems to promise improved security.
According to a poll taken the week after the Sept. 11 attacks, 86 percent favored the use of facial-recognition technology to scan for suspected and known terrorists, according to Visionics Corp., which manufactures facial-recognition technology called FaceIt.
"It's time to make sure that airports and public spaces are not safe havens for terrorists and criminals," said Visionics' chief executive officer, Joseph Atick. "For years, we have scanned for the weapons and explosives that terrorists use. Now, we can scan directly for the faces of known terrorists themselves."
But Rosen and others caution against expecting too much. Facial-recognition systems are supposed to examine faces in public places such as airports and compare them to databases of photographs of suspected terrorists. But a critical shortcoming is that law enforcement authorities have relatively few photographs of suspected terrorists to put into databases. Only two of the Sept. 11 hijackers were on government lists of suspected terrorists.
Most terrorists are unknown, Rosen said. In Britain, he found that photo databases contained mainly photos of "low-level criminals."
Another problem with the systems is that they simply don't work very well, said Richard Smith, chief technology officer of the Privacy Foundation.
In a test of facial-recognition technology, Smith used FaceIt to examine two similar photos of himself. The software was unable to recognize the photos as depicting the same person. The main differences in the photos were their lighting and background, Smith said. Keeping the background and lighting condition the same, he said, but wearing sunglasses in one picture also "completely fooled the system." The experiment raised "practicality questions" about facial-recognition software, he said.
Privacy advocates worry that increased use of cameras and monitoring in public places will undermine basic civil liberties. Some fear people will become reluctant to exercise their rights of free speech and freedom of assembly in activities such as political rallies if they know their presence will be recorded.
Others warn that surveillance systems can be linked together to track individuals as they board a train, enter a bank, go to work, shop or simply walk down a street. "What constitutes a reasonable search in the era of ubiquitous identification?" Rosen asked.
Facial recognition: How it works
Facial-recognition software searches faces for distinguishable landmarks, "the peaks and valleys that make up different facial features," according to Howstuffworks Inc. Facial-recognition software analyzes some of the 80 or so "nodal points" that make up human faces, such as the:
* Distance between the eyes.
* Width of the nose.
* Depth of eye sockets.
* Shape of cheekbones.
* Jaw line.
* Shape of the chin.
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