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Monday, 20 August, 2001, 18:24 GMT 19:24 UK
Anger over face-scanning cameras
Super Bowl
Fans objected to hi-tech surveillance at the Super Bowl
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

The championship game of American football, known as the Super Bowl, was notable not only for the play or the outcome but also because it was a landmark in what have become the privacy wars.

The Super Bowl by many has come to be known as the Snooper Bowl because officials used cameras and face recognition technology to scan the crowds for known criminals.

The use of the face-scanning cameras did not come out until after the game and the public was outraged.

The industry stands by its technology but is now calling for federal law in the US to govern its use.

Public opposition

The technology works by converting a photograph or video image of a face into an equation that describes the geometric characteristics of a person's face, said Dr Joseph Atick, president and CEO of Visionics, one of the companies that produces face recognition as well as other biometric technologies.

Software converts the facial images into an 84-byte file called a face print. The software then does a mathematical comparison with the face prints it collects through the cameras against a database of known face prints, such as criminals or terrorists, Dr Atick said.

A surveillance camera mounted on a light post
Angry reaction to hi-tech cameras in public areas
The technology is not widespread. It is in use in one US city and another has just secured funding to install a system.

The city council in Tampa Bay this month voted 4-3 to continue using the cameras in its nightlife district, and the city of Virginia Beach recently was awarded a $150,000 grant to install a system.

Officials say it is not Big Brother watching you but rather Big Brother watching out for you.

But the public is not convinced.

In Tampa, about 100 people protested the new cameras last month. Some gestured obscenely at the cameras, shouting, "digitise this."

Little regulation

Right now, there are few laws governing the use of the technology.

Kate Rears of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre said there needs to be a legal framework to govern the technology.

She said that just as wiretaps and searches are well-regulated law enforcement techniques, this new technology also needs clear regulations.

She said that the technology has the potential to spread fairly quickly, saying the public and lawmakers needed to become informed about the privacy issues concerning the use of digital face-recognition systems.

There have to be specific regulations on how the information gathered is being used and what happens to the information once it is in the system, she said.

In addition, she said that the technology is not proven.

At the Super Bowl, she said, "Among this crowd of thousands of people, it didn't actually point anyone out." It caused people to question its efficacy, she added.

Industry calls for law

Dr Atick defends the technology. He said that it is not being used to perform mass surveillance or tracking.

We believe that facial recognition is powerful technology that requires responsible use

Dr Joseph Atick, president and CEO Visionics
And he says that it has been proven in Newham in the UK, where it has been installed since the autumn of 1998.

In the first year of operation, the company says that the crime dropped in the area by 40%.

The company already asks adopters of the technology to sign an acceptable use policy, monitors compliance with the policy and where possible builds in safeguards into its systems.

But in July, the company publicly called for federal legislation to regulate the technology.

Visionics said the law should include:

  • Public notification provisions so that the public is aware the technology is in use through signs or media alerts
  • Guidelines for the databases used to identify criminals or terrorists clearly outlining who should be included or removed from the database, how the database is disseminated and security for the database
  • No-match, no-memory provisions so that images are not kept by the system unless they match a criminal
  • Recourse and penalty for violations of the principles.

"We believe that facial recognition is powerful technology that requires responsible use," Dr Atick said.

Kate Rears of EPIC
"This (technology) has the potential to spread pretty quickly"
Dr Joseph Atick, president and CEO Visionics
"We want to make sure that we have clear laws in place to prevent abuse of the system"
See also:

13 Jul 00 | Americas
Carnivore upsets privacy groups
25 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Watching while you surf
08 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
FBI ordered to reveal bugging trick
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