Second city OKs facial recognition

City of Virginia Beach

Virginia Beach, Va., became the second city in the country to approve facial-recognition

software after the city council overwhelmingly approved funding for the

technology Nov. 13.

"In approving, the council agreed to accept the $150,000 grant from

the state Criminal Services [Division] and provide a $50,000 match from

the city in order to install and implement the facial-recognition software,"

city spokeswoman Emma Inman said. The vote was 10-1.

The technology will be deployed in the city's tourist-laden oceanfront

area as "another tool" to help the Virginia Beach Police Department fight

crime, Inman said. She added that for a city of its size, Virginia Beach

is one of the safest in the country, and the "police department had been

looking at innovative tools to help us stay that way."

Annually, more than 2.5 million tourists visit the resort city, which

has a population of about 425,000.

Facial-recognition technology uses surveillance cameras to capture a

photo of a person's face and then match it against a database of images,

usually of felons and runaways. Although it has been used in England for

several years as well as in the mug shot/booking systems of U.S. police

departments and by private companies, the technology gained national notoriety

during Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, Fla., when ticket holders' faces were scanned.

Several months later, the Tampa City Council approved the use of facial-recognition

technology, and it was installed in the city's entertainment district. A

national controversy erupted over privacy rights, many decrying it as a

Big Brother tactic. Privacy experts have also said the technology does not

work very well.

The Virginia Beach Police Department began looking at the technology

last summer, and during the past several months, police officials met with

various community, civil liberty and minority groups to explain the technology,

said Vice Mayor William Sessoms. "Our police department went about this

thing the right way. They went out to the community," he said.

Sessoms said that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may have been a factor

for some support, but it was really the police department's outreach to

the community that helped.

"I think the majority of the council was in favor of it before Sept.

11," he said. "First of all, [the technology is] a deterrent and, secondly,

it certainly could catch a convicted felon. But it could also help find

a child that is lost or an elderly person."

Since the attacks, facial-recognition software and other biometric technologies

have received widespread attention, especially for use in airports.

Before Virginia Beach installs the technology, Inman said the city would

form a citizens advisory group to help the police department develop policies

and procedures on how to use the software and provide oversight. She said

representatives might come from a council of civic groups, the city's Filipino-American

and Hispanic communities, as well as the National Association for the Advancement

of Colored People.

After the technology has been in use for a year, the citizens group

will assess how it has been working and how well the policies have been

followed, she said. The city attorney's office will provide information

about false matches and whether any litigation stemmed from them, Inman

added.

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