Official calls for sensible tech use

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"The eyes have it"

PHILADELPHIA — If you watch National Football League games on television, you might notice a virtual yellow line overlaid on the field to help viewers locate the first down marker. It's an elementary version of what's called "augmented reality," one of several emerging technologies that a New York police official says will change law enforcement and society in the not-so-distant future.

Developing technologies — such as reality augmentation, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, biometrics, radio frequency identification tags, autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles, ranging in size from an airplane to a gnat, and wireless technologies — will be important to combat emerging terrorist and criminal threats, said Capt. Thomas Cowper of the New York State Police. For instance, it's not inconceivable that augmented reality — taking digital information and overlaying it on a real image — could be combined with facial recognition software so that can scan faces and, in real time, find out who's wanted, said Cowper, speaking recently at the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

But as technology advances at an exponential rate, police and homeland security officials must deal with it sensibly, otherwise it will adversely affect privacy and security, he said. The problem isn't technology itself, but how it's implemented, Cowper said. Unless law enforcement deals with new technology in an educated and responsible way, it will have a hard time, Cowper said.

For example, the Tampa Police Department's use of facial recognition software to scan for criminals among ticket holders attending the Super Bowl two years ago was roundly criticized. In another high-profile issue, the Defense Department scrapped its Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) program that employed data mining, collaborative software, analytical tools and decision support aids so officials could gather and analyze information about terrorists.

Although privacy protection was a major component of the program, many outsiders characterized TIA as an aberration cooked up to circumvent privacy, Cowper said. "TIA was nothing more than the inevitable result of technological progress yet we rejected that technology for law enforcement and homeland security use," said Cowper.

Meanwhile, several similar federal programs — such as the CIA's Terrorist Threat Integration Center and the Transportation Security Administration's Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System — employ the same components, yet no one has raised a furor over them, he said.

The American public will accept technology, just as they have in the past, Cowper said. The question, he said, is whether law enforcement can use emerging technologies to simultaneously provide homeland security and protect constitutional freedoms.

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