Responsible use urged on facial scans

It may be comforting to think that facial-recognition cameras are scanning faces in airports, ever alert for terrorists, and watching over shopping centers to spot criminals. But what if the cameras also start checking on you?

That possibility is increasing as law enforcement and safety agencies — as well as the general public — embrace surveillance technology as a way to increase security. Furthermore, little consideration has been given to the need for legal restrictions on how surveillance technology can be used, a privacy expert warns.

Earlier forms of snooping technology, such as wiretaps, are subject to elaborate restrictions, but there has been little discussion about curbs needed for the newest high-tech surveillance systems, said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Attitudes toward the use of facial-recognition systems have been transformed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Formerly regarded with suspicion as an intrusive Big Brother, they are now widely perceived as protective electronic guardians.

A recent poll showed that 86 percent of the public now favors the use of facial-recognition systems, according to Visionics Corp., which manufactures the systems. Agencies from the Federal Aviation Administration to the Defense Department are evaluating them, said Visionics spokeswoman Frances Zelazny.

Rotenberg and Zelazny were part of a Cato Institute panel that discussed biometric technologies and civil rights Jan. 24.

Facial-recognition systems work by taking a photo of a face, converting it into a digital "template" and comparing it to templates of known terrorists or criminals. If there is a match, the system alerts security officials, who would investigate further.

Zelazny said the images collected in public places such as airports are not stored but are compared to images in the database and discarded if there is no match. She said the systems are cheaper and less intrusive than "a massive police presence," and they are free of prejudice because they do not focus on such features as color or style of clothing.

But, she cautioned, they do require "responsible use," and their effectiveness depends on the quality and accuracy of the images and information in databases.

Database content is a key concern for Rotenberg. Unless there are prohibitions against it, facial-recognition systems are likely to be linked to databases that contain digital photos and personal information about tens of millions of driver's license holders, he said.

Armed with that information, it would be possible for a facial-recognition camera to identify many of the people that come within range of its lens. In effect, the camera would compel people engaged in ordinary activities such as shopping to disclose their identities. That might constitute an unreasonable search that is prohibited by the Constitution, he said.

But another panel member, Rand scholar John Woodward, saw little reason for alarm. A camera's facial-recognition abilities are similar to a police officer's ability to recognize people he encounters on his beat. And the camera's omnipresent gaze is akin to the closed-circuit TV systems widely used today to monitor stores and other public places, he said.

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