Tampa Uses New Face Scan Technology

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  1. By Vickie Chachere, Associated Press Writer
    Source: Associated Press

    Visitors to Tampa's crime-ridden Ybor City nightlife district are being watched by cameras that are analyzing their chins, noses and cheekbones with futuristic law enforcement technology that has evoked cries of "Big Brother."
    The video cameras along Ybor City's streets snap pictures of the faces in the crowd and compare those images to a database of 30,000 people that includes runaway teen-agers and people wanted on criminal charges.

    Tampa is the only city in America where police use the face-recognition technology for routine surveillance, but it may not be for long. Virginia Beach, Va., is seeking a $150,000 state grant for a similar system.

    "It'll be worth it if they get the right people," said Virginia Beach shopper Michelle Porter-Loftin. "Makes me wonder. I'd be worried about mistaken identity. We'll see."

    Civil libertarians are alarmed by what they regard as a virtual police lineup and a scary sign of things to come.

    House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said Wednesday: "Do we really want a society where one cannot walk down the street without Big Brother tracking our every move?"

    Critics point to face-scanning technology as the latest in a series of technological advances that have Americans increasingly under authority's eye – such as rental car companies using satellites to keep tabs on their automobiles and catch customers speeding, and employers reading their employees' e-mail and keeping track of their Web-surfing habits.

    The FaceIt technology, created by Visionics Corp. of Jersey City, N.J., has been in use in Ybor at peak times for the past two weekends. No one has been arrested, nor have any runaways been found so far. And the company said there has yet to be a case establishing whether FaceIt is legal.

    The technology has been used in casinos and foreign airports to find card cheats and terrorists. It is also the same technology used to examine the Super Bowl XXXV crowd in Tampa in January for fugitives and terrorists. And the Ugandan government used it to scan the faces of 10 million voters to protect against fraud in elections earlier this year.

    It works by analyzing 80 points between the nose, cheekbones and eyes.

    David Watkins, president of advanced biometric imaging for Visionics, said images that do not match anyone in the database are dumped out of the system in five to 10 seconds. Faces that are at least an 85 percent match sound an alarm.

    The City Council approved the use of FaceIt in Ybor City earlier this year without debate or a public hearing.

    "I don't think it's that much different from getting your picture taking every time you use an ATM machine," said City Councilman Bob Buckhorn.

    Supporters say using the technology is no different from a police officer who has studied mug shots and is posted on a corner to watch passers-by. FaceIt can also be a crime deterrent, advocates argue.

    "If you had a warrant for your arrest and you knew coming to that area you are being looked for would you even go there?" Watkins asked.

    There has been such an uproar, though, that some council members who voted in favor now say they want to reconsider.

    Ybor City has long been a pocket of lawlessness in Tampa. The one-time center of Tampa's cigar industry, the Latin quarter's history is rich with tales of gangsters, fights, murders and illegal gambling.

    The crime problems have persisted through Ybor City's rebirth as an entertainment district in the early 1990s, with bars, restaurants, clubs. Thugs prey on the well-to-do and often tipsy visitors, robbing and assaulting them.

    Initially, police turned to measures such as closed-circuit television surveillance, mounted patrols and scores of officers walking the beat.

    The Law Enforcement Alliance of America, an organization of police and crime victims who support measures such as the death penalty, said FaceIt is too intrusive and has called for its immediate removal.

    "If we had random searches of everyone's homes we could cut down on a lot of crime," said Kevin Watson, a spokesman for the Washington-based group. "It's still not right."

    On the Net:

    House Majority Leader: http://www.freedom.gov

    Tampa Police: http://www.ci.tampa.fl.us/dept–Police/

    Source: Associated Press
    Author: Vickie Chachere, Associated Press Writer
    Published: Friday, July 13, 2001
    Copyright: 2001 The Associated Press

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