Can a picture catch a thousand criminals?
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Aug 06, 2001
It's not "Candid Camera," but Tampa, Fla., has surveillance cameras photographing pedestrians' faces to see if they're wanted criminals. Though the city calls it police work, critics say it violates people's privacy.
Tampa is reportedly the first U.S. city to integrate surveillance equipment with face-recognition software as a high-tech way to catch criminals. In a test that will last one year, police will monitor a 16-square-block segment of Ybor City, an entertainment district about two miles from downtown Tampa. They'll outfit the area with 36 cameras to scan and evaluate the images of passersby.
According to Detective Bill Todd, images captured on camera will be matched against a database containing 30,000 images of sexual offenders, people with outstanding felony warrants, and runaway children and teens.
Captured images will be funneled through the database for matches. Nonmatching images are automatically deleted, Todd said. If a match appears, the system generates a sound to alert officers, who would then determine whether the two images match or not. If officers believe a match exists, field officersare alerted.
Todd said the police would not use "Gestapo-style" tactics or other extreme measures to approach a person whose face apparently matched an imagein the database. The person would be approached and asked for identification, he said, adding that if the person presents proper ID, officers would thank him or her for cooperating. The department has instituted written policies on conducting such approaches, and officers are supposed to keep a writtenlog of such encounters and their results, he said.
It's not the first time Tampa has used the system. When it hosted SuperBowl XXXV this year, ticket holders' faces were scanned and similarly compared against a database containing images of criminal offenders. During the same time, the test was also conducted in Ybor City.
National publicity has apparently rattled several Tampa City Council members, who initially approved the program, but now want to end it. Some said they weren't fully informed and think it's an invasion of privacy. he program also sparked protests among scores of residents.
Richard Smith, chief technology officer for the Denver-based Privacy Foundation, a nonprofit research and education group, criticized Tampa and said the city is making a huge mistake.
"I think it's a pretty sad day," he said. "I think the city of Tampa should be ashamed. This is really going way over the line.... If we do this over the whole country, just imagine: Every little thing we do is watched. It's terrible."
The system is designed to stop criminals, Todd said, not intrude on anyone's privacy.
"We don't believe it's intrusive at all," he said. "This is no different than a police officer standing on the corner with a case of mug shots and looking at people walking on the street."
Smith questioned the system's effectiveness and wanted to know how innocent people would be stopped and questioned. "I'm not against high-tech surveillance in general, [but against] a system like this [taking] innocent peopleand putting them through a database and checking them to see if they have a criminal record," he said.
Frances Zelazny, spokeswoman for Jersey City, N.J.-based Visionics Corp., which is lending its FaceIt software to Tampa for a year to test, said its face-recognition software was judged one of the best by the U.S. Defense Department, which evaluated several. She said the company's software is much more accurate than the product used during the Super Bowl.
She said Tampa is the first U.S. city to use the technology for public safety. Virginia Beach, Va., may become the second. The police department there is awaiting city council approval for a $200,000 program to integrate face-recognition software and surveillance cameras along the city's boardwalk. And beginning next summer, Colorado's Department of Motor Vehicles will use the software to prevent identity theft and driver's license fraud by scanning old driver's license photos and comparing them with new photographs of drivers.
In the United Kingdom, the Newham Borough of London has used FaceIt since fall 1998, seeing a 40 percent crime reduction in the first year, Zelazny said. It's also been used in Iceland's Keflavik International Airport, by other U.S. police departments in their mug shot/booking systems, and by private companies.
Visionics has established guidelines on how to use the system while protecting people's rights, she said. Recommendations include: posting signs saying that a closed circuit camera is in use; having the database contain only images of known offenders; and erasing nonmatching images from the system once comparisons are finished.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who questioned the effectiveness and privacy issues surrounding red-light cameras, had nothing nice to sayabout the Tampa experiment.
"This is a full-scale surveillance system," he said. "Do we really want a society where one cannot walk down the street without Big Brother tracking our every move?"
"We gave away our privacy in allowing red-light and photo-radar cameras to take the place of police on our streets," Armey said. "Now Tampa has taken the next step, and there's nowhere to turn for those who value their privacy."