Recognizing facial ID possibilities

Step into a store a few years from now, and a facial recognition camera will retrieve your dossier. Up on a screen pop your name and address, perhaps a list of recent purchases, brand preferences and some credit information.

Current security worries are generating widespread interest in facial-recognition technology for law enforcement purposes, but it takes only a little imagination to see the commercial potential of face-scanning cameras and related databases, said Whitfield Diffie, a Sun Microsystems Inc. engineer.

Talk of installing facial-recognition systems in airports and their use in football stadiums and on street corners in the United States and Britain alarm privacy advocates.

But Diffie sees the matter differently.

"I'm not sure it is such a bad thing," he said during a privacy forum in Washington, D.C., Oct. 22. The rise of cameras and identification software may simply be creating a high-tech version of the small-town society that was common several generations ago.

People used to live in small towns where they may have been recognized by hundreds of other residents. Soon, equipment may do the recognizing, he said.

But others are not so sanguine.

In Great Britain, where surveillance cameras on street corners are common, abuse of the system is rampant, said Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University.

Voyeuristic and discriminatory surveillance abounds, he said, adding that camera monitors spend much of their time zooming in on attractive women or focusing on young men with dark complexions.

Law enforcement agencies and facial-recognition equipment makers contend that camera systems installed in airports, subway systems and other public places will enhance safety by taking pictures of people and comparing them to databases of suspected terrorists. But privacy advocates like Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, decry their intrusiveness.

Some states, including California, have restricted the use of facial-recognition cameras because they invade privacy. But there is no clear guarantee to privacy in the U.S. Constitution. There is a guarantee against unreasonable searches, but it is unclear precisely how that applies to facial-recognition systems.

Advocates of facial recognition systems may be expecting too much from the technology, said Richard Smith of the Privacy Foundation.

Using similar photos of himself, Smith demonstrated how different lighting and different backgrounds are enough to make the software question whether the photos are of the same person. Add sunglasses to the face, and the computer sees no match.

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 probably would not have been thwarted by facial-recognition software, Smith said.

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