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Posted: 8/13/2001 6:42:36 PM EDT
The Los Angeles Times August 13 2001 The Digital Eye Is on You EDITORIAL http://latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-000065614aug13.story?coll=la%2 In recent months, sophisticated "biometric" technologies--computers that identify individuals by analyzing facial shape, retinas, hand geometry or voice signatures--have jumped out of bad science fiction films and into America's cities. Their chief victim is privacy rights. This year at the 35th Super Bowl, in Tampa, Fla., police used FaceIt, a computer software program by Visionics Corp., to electronically scan every face in the huge crowd and then match those faces against a database of known criminals. The system sort of worked, identifying 19 people with pending arrest warrants (though police never got around to arresting them) and generating new business for New Jersey-based Visionics. Tampa now has cameras in the night-life district, and the Pentagon is spending $50 million on a project called "Human ID at a Distance," which includes face recognition. Last month, Virginia Beach, Va., police announced that they want to install similar cameras and software in tourist spots. In the sort of surprising alliance that obtrusive new technologies often inspire, the American Civil Liberties Union and House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) last month denounced "Snooper Bowl 35" as an outlandish privacy violation that has sent the nation sliding toward "high-tech racial profiling" and "virtual lineups of Americans" not suspected of any crime. Electronic databases are being assembled by private businesses as well as government. Law enforcement currently has carte blanche to install video surveillance without public notification, consultation or debate. There is little to stop anybody who can pay the price from gaining access to "faceprints" in vast private databanks. True, Americans' financial privacy already is all but wrecked, but that does not justify more intrusion. Visionics' president, Joseph Atick, says that his face-recognition technologies are the logical next step to take after digital fingerprinting. There is, in fact, enormous difference between analyzing electronic fingerprints given with permission or after an arrest and surreptitiously surveying faces in a crowd. Even Atick agrees that both public and private companies should support requiring clearly visible signs that tell people where surveillance cameras are, along with backing guidelines limiting how police agencies can share photographic images, automatic deletion of images that don't match photographs of criminals and other safeguards. That is far from enough. The debate has to include whether these technologies provide the overwhelming benefit that must be proved to justify such an offense against privacy. Technology is advancing more rapidly than public policy. Legislators must decide which technologies enhance security and which ones merely invade privacy. It is better to err on the side of privacy until an overriding public good can be proved.
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