Official slaps at facial scanning

A Jacksonville, Fla., councilwoman has introduced legislation banning theuse of facial-recognition technology by the Sheriff's Office and other city agencies.

"I want to do those things I can to stop [an] invasion of privacy," said Councilwoman at Large Gwen Chandler-Thompson, who proposed the resolution last week. "I don't want Big Brother watching me. I thought it would be wise to be proactive rather than reactive."

Chandler-Thompson, who said she's not sure how her 18 fellow council membersf eel about the technology, said she began researching the issue shortly after Tampa, Fla., police linked surveillance cameras to facial-recognition software two months ago in the entertainment district of Ybor City.

Cameras scan and capture photographs of people's faces, which are then matched against a computer image database of 30,000 wanted felons, sex offenders and runaways. (Earlier in the year, Tampa police tested the technology during Super Bowl XXXV, scanning faces of game attendees.)

Soon after, a privacy firestorm erupted over whether the technology — currently used in police department mug shot booking systems, airports, gaming casinos, bank automated teller machines, and by several governments overseas — has become too invasive.

In Ybor City, there were public demonstrations against the technology's use. And two Tampa City Council members, who said they didn't know the technology was going to be used that way, proposed terminating the contract with New Jersey-based Visionics Corp., which developed and supplied the face-recognition software. However, the council voted 4-2 on Aug. 2 to keep the technology. Recently, the Virginia Beach, Va., police department was given a grant for a similar system along a boardwalk.

In an Aug. 21 memo to the Jacksonville City Council, Chandler-Thompson said, "Tampa's elected leadership was blindsided by authorizing legislation that "slipped' through the process." She said she didn't want the same thing to happen in her city.

Steve Phillippy, a volunteer who chairs the Greater Tampa Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he didn't know about Jacksonville's proposed ordinance, but agreed that the facial-recognition technology took Tampa council members by surprise. "It was a standard item [on the city council agenda] and nobody understood what they were voting for," he said.

He said the ACLU opposes use of the technology because research shows it doesn't work well at this point. But the technology may become sophisticated and more accurate in the future, he said, adding people should be concerned about the technology's "long-term character" and examine those issues carefully.

"We need as a society to consider the consequences, the tradeoffs, and rules that we have to have in the future," said Phillippy.

The Jacksonville legislation has been referred to the Public Health and Safety Committee and the Rules Committee. Chandler-Thompson said it could take at least six weeks before it comes to a full City Council vote.

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