Tampa drops face software

City of Tampa, Fla.

More than two years after Tampa installed a controversial surveillance system to scan peoples' faces in a crowd and match them against a criminal database, the city's police department has scrapped the practice.

The department today said it elected not to renew its annual agreement with Minnetonka, Minn.-based Identix Inc., for the facial recognition software. "While the software proved reliable in testing, there have been no positive identifications or arrests attributed to the software," a department press release noted.

That's good news to privacy advocates who railed against the surveillance system, saying it resembled Big Brother, and wouldn't deliver on its promises.

"Consider the fact that the technology was largely unproven and the manner in which it was implemented was especially disturbing," said Darlene Williams, chairperson of the Greater Tampa Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, in reference to the lack of a public hearing when the system was first implemented.

"This process essentially subjects citizens walking down a public street to being placed in an electronic police lineup," said Williams. "It took away a person's right to consent to a search."

In July 2001, Tampa became the first city to deploy the system, combining facial recognition software with surveillance cameras in an entertainment district called Ybor City. The city tested a similar system during SuperBowl XXXV earlier in the year.

A 16-block area in Ybor City was outfitted with about three dozen cameras that would capture people's facial images and try to match them against a database of 30,000 images of sexual offenders, individuals with outstanding felony warrants and runaway children and teens. Police said nonmatching images were automatically discarded.

"Identix has always stated this technology requires safeguards and as a society we need to be comfortable with its use," said Meir Kahtan, a spokesman for the Identix.

Williams said she didn't hear of any complaints during the two years the system was operating, but she said he didn't hear of any arrests either. She said she had suggested to the police department to deploy more officers on the street rather than use the technology.

Since Tampa, at least one city, Virginia Beach, Va., has installed a similar system.

Two phone calls to the Tampa police department were not immediately returned.

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