City trials 'Minority Report' surveillance tech

ZD Net/Reuters 01/13/03

Original Link:
http://news.zdnet.co.uk/story/0,,t269-s2128564,00.html

A US holiday resort is testing out face recognition software to find missing people and those wanted by the police - but some fear that its use could spread, raising questions about civil liberties.

Police in the popular US resort city Virginia Beach recently began operating video surveillance cameras with controversial face-recognition technology that critics say brings the United States one step closer to becoming a society where "Big Brother is watching you."

Virginia Beach, Florida, is -- along with Tampa, Florida -- one of only two cities in the United States to acquire the technology, which cost it $197,000. The system went live last September, at the tail end of the summer holiday period when the city was crowded with visitors.

"Before we switched it on, we went through an extensive public education process with hearings and the involvement of citizen groups and minority groups, who helped write the policies we are using," said deputy police chief Greg Mullen.

As a result, the cameras may only be used for two narrowly defined purposes: to catch some 1,500 people wanted by the city on outstanding felony warrant, and to find runaway children or missing persons. All the images picked up by the cameras are immediately deleted from the system if there is no match.

A citizens' auditing committee has the right to perform unannounced spot checks on police headquarters to make sure the technology is not being misused.

Virginia Beach has had video surveillance cameras watching over its beachfront area since 1993. Three of the city's 13 cameras are linked full-time to the face recognition system, though the others can be activated as needed. The database of wanted people is updated every day.

So far, the system has failed to produce a single arrest, though it has generated a few false alarms. In September, it was sending some 8,000 images a day to the computer at police headquarters. Each camera has the capacity to generate six pictures a minute.

It works by analysing faces based on a series of measurements, such as the distance from the tip of the nose to the chin or the space between the eyes. Critics say it is highly inaccurate and can be easily fooled.

Mullen, who sees the system eventually being linked to the databases of other city, state and federal law enforcement agencies to track criminals and suspected terrorists, said: "The system doesn't look at skin colour or your hair or your gender. It takes human prejudices out of the equation."

Civil liberties groups are hardly reassured. They fear an erosion of personal privacy and evoke the dark vision of George Orwell's novel "1984", in which he imagined a totalitarian society with a "Big Brother" who kept all its citizens under constant surveillance.

"This technology has little or no effect on the crime rate but it does have an effect on peoples' behaviour. People feel cowed," said Bruce Steinhardt, who directs a technology and liberty programme for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Video surveillance has mushroomed across industrialised nations in recent years. Britain leads the world: the average Londoner is estimated to have his or her picture recorded more than 300 times a day, but New York is not far behind, although its cameras are not linked to face recognition technology.

Studies have found that any reduction in crime after surveillance cameras go in may wear off over time. But Mullen said the cameras in Virginia Beach had provided evidence at trials, allowed police to arrive at crime scenes much more quickly and track criminals as they made their escape. They have also helped police disperse crowds before they became rowdy and freed up officers for other tasks.

In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans seem to be more willing to sacrifice some of their personal privacy for the sake of enhancing security.

Still, many are alarmed by concepts like the Pentagon's proposed Total Information Awareness system, which would collect individuals' financial, medical, communication and travel records in a massive database in the hope of uncovering patterns of potentially hostile activity.

Despite the fact that tests have shown face recognition only works in around 30 percent of cases, the ACLU is alarmed that the technology may soon spread to airports. The organisation also fears it could potentially be used to monitor individuals' political activities to harass law-abiding citizens.

"This kind of surveillance should be subject to the same procedures as wiretaps. Law enforcement agencies should justify why they need it and it should be tightly limited, otherwise it will soon become a tool of social control," said Mihir Kshirsagar of the Electronic Information Privacy Center.

Nor does such criticism come exclusively from the political left. Lawyer John Whitehead, founder of the conservative Rutherford Institute, wrote in an editorial that the technology threatened the right of each US citizen to participate in society without the express or implied threat of coercion.

"After all, that is exactly what constant surveillance is -- the ultimate implied threat of coercion," he wrote.

Mullen said that was nonsense. To him, the cameras are no different in principle from a police officer standing on a street corner with a wanted poster -- just more efficient.










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