August 21, 2003 2:17 PM PDT

Tampa drops face-recognition system

The Tampa Police Department in Florida this week ditched a controversial facial-recognition system, saying it had not helped them catch even one criminal.

The system, which scanned faces in a crowd and compared them to photographs of criminals in a database, had come under fire by privacy and civil liberties advocates since its installation two years ago. Critics feared the system would make false identifications or invade people's privacy.

Capt. Bob Guidara, a spokesman for the Tampa Police Department, said the city scrapped the system because it didn't help fight crime, not because of privacy concerns. "We never identified, were alerted to, or caught any criminal," he said. "It didn't work."

Guidara said the department will keep closed-circuit cameras in place, so officers can continue to physically monitor areas during busy hours. He said that technique has helped them nab criminals.

Tampa sparked a barrage of criticism when it launched the facial-recognition system two years ago, installing the cameras in its Ybor City entertainment district to monitor for criminal activity. Critics warned that people could be falsely accused because of imprecise software that could misidentify people as criminals.

In general, privacy advocates have long worried that such biometrics software could be abused, leading to a surveillance society where people's every move is tracked and captured, and innocent subjects are targeted by law enforcement because of their affiliations with certain political groups.

"We've had ongoing concerns about public video surveillance in general, and facial-recognition software is something that makes all those problems worse," said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that has often criticized facial-recognition software. "We're happy to see them come to their senses," he said of Tampa representatives' decision to abandon the software system.

Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union, said there has never been an instance of a facial-recognition system discovering a wanted criminal in the field in the United States.

He said it was about time Tampa abandoned the system. "From a security perspective, there's nothing worse than the illusion of security," he said. "That's what these companies offer: the illusion of security."

The department acquired the system through a free test program from face-recognition company Visionics (now Identix). Identix sent out a statement in response to the decision to pull the software, but the company did not comment directly on the department's complaints that the software didn?t work. "Identix has always stated that this technology requires safeguards and that as a society, we need to be comfortable with its use," the statement said.

 

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