Originally created 02/04/01

Big Brother really is watching

Smile, because your ATM soon will recognize your face, and know you.

Run a red light, and a camera takes a picture of your car tags and a computer sends a ticket in the mail. Go to the bathroom at one Lake Michigan resort, and cameras record what you do. Buy a bottle of milk with a shopping card, and not only is the transaction filmed, but the time of the purchase recorded for posterity.

Say hello to Big Brother.

More than 100,000 ticket holders at Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, Fla., last weekend got a glimpse of this brave new world when police cameras filmed them as they entered through the turnstiles, and computer software sought to match the faces with terrorists, trouble-makers and criminals.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who is weighing new federal privacy rights legislation as a member of the congressional privacy caucus, said the Super Bowl monitoring was the latest example of a steady erosion of privacy rights.

"It's come to the point where even attending something as innocuous as a sporting event can result in people's private information - without any consent, any knowledge beforehand - being collected and gathered," said Dodd. "This is an issue that transcends politics, and ideology and partisanship."

Face-recognition technologies have been around for a decade, and are often used as security devices to gain access to buildings.

The technology breaks down pictures into unique mathematical formulas, or algorithms, and matches them with formulas stored in computer databases.

Wells Fargo Banks in Dallas are installing 860 new generations of automatic teller machines that rely on the technology to recognize customers, and identify those who have defrauded the bank in the past. Las Vegas is using machines to identify those banned from gambling when they enter the gambling floors.

"You have to do some pretty major surgery to evade the system," said Frances Zelazny, spokeswoman for Visionics, a leading face-recognition company in Jersey City, N.J., that developed the technology, and is installing the machines in Dallas.

She said the use of the face-recognition technology at the Super Bowl was a test to see how it can be used in law enforcement in the United States, but her company already is working with London's Metropolitan Police Department using a system that identifies people using cameras on the streets of the London borough of Newham.

Since Newham installed the $3 million system in 1998, the city council reports that assaults on individuals declined 21 percent, vandalism was reduced 26 percent, and burglaries dropped 39 percent. Information gleaned from the cameras also led to more than 100 arrests, including three for murder, eight for stealing, and 90 for muggings.

The system is blind as a bat if you are not in the data base, Zelazny said. She said most of the users of the technology find it enhances privacy and guards against criminals from raiding bank accounts or trying to take over some one else's identity.

Civil libertarian groups said the Tampa test is breaking new ground that could pose dangers to the liberties of citizens.

"This use was relatively benign, but the next won't be. Biometrics is creeping into our lives," said Barry Steinhardt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. He protested there are no government regulations of the technology, and few protections for citizens against misuse.

The federal government is exploring ways of using the technology. The State Department says it wants to use face-recognition devices for security at its embassies, and the Pentagon is financing some of the university research into the technology.

The U.S. Passport Agency last year put out a request to the industry to come up with machines that can read faces on passports or visas, and match them with pictures on a database. Face-matching technologies also are being used in several states to identify welfare cheats or phony drivers licenses.

Alice O'Toole, a University of Texas professor working in the field, said she's not impressed by the sophistication of commercial face-recognition systems she has seen.

She said the technology does not work well with people who know how to evade it or who are uncooperative with the cameras. "If they are surreptitious, you do not get good algorithms," she said. She said it also is not good for finding people in a crowd.

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