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Prying eyes

By Lisa S. Dean
web posted July 16, 2001

Every now and again something startles us, forcing us out of the narrow, sheltered worlds in which we live and we wonder how that something got there. Usually that "something" is not good and it forces us into action to either stop it or prevent it from getting worse.

Such is the case in Denver, Colorado where citizens are up in arms over a new traffic light surveillance system that not only captures the picture of their vehicles on camera, but their faces as well.

The system is part of a new Department of Motor Vehicles initiative designed to stop identity theft and drivers license fraud. When the motorist is stopped at a traffic light, the camera takes his picture and the face recognition software maps out a three-dimensional image of the driver's face, matching that record to the one in the DMV database, to come up with a positive identification of the individual driving the car.

But the system is not just restricted to motorists. Recently, the city of Tampa, Florida became the first city in the US to install a similar system on street corners in an effort by law enforcement to identify criminals walking along the city streets.

But how did this happen, you might ask? How did we get to this point where what was once science fiction is now reality? Well, cast your minds back, if you will to three years ago when Image Data, a US company, received a grant totaling $1.5 million from the US Secret Service to develop a database containing every motorist's photo ID. Image Data had entered in to agreement with a number of states to buy their citizens' driver's license photos to enter into the database. The Secret Service wanted a complete database containing the picture ID of every US motorist for the purpose of catching criminals.

There was a bit of a scuffle over a government agency selling private information to a business but very few saw the potential danger in doing so. While Image Data was busy building its database for federal law enforcement, states were passing laws requiring the installation of cameras on city streets and intersections, allegedly to "monitor traffic flow".

An automobile passes a soon-to-be operating traffic camera to monitor speeding, on May 8 on the George Washington Parkway near Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va.
An automobile passes a soon-to-be operating traffic camera to monitor speeding, on May 8 on the George Washington Parkway near Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va.

Many privacy advocates both here in Washington and across the country saw the big picture and were alarmed at the potential abuse of our privacy that this system could cause. The combination of street cameras monitoring pedestrians and motorists and face recognition software that would identify pedestrians and motorists was a lethal one.

Needless to say, their concerns were ignored and even dismissed as paranoid or anti-government. Well, you can call them "paranoid" or whatever other name you like. I call them "correct".

I predict that the next step for Big Brother is for law enforcement to combine our personal information that government agencies have been collecting with the face recognition software. That way they will not only know where we are, but who we are and everything about our lives, how much money we have in our bank accounts, what medication we might be taking or what illnesses we're being treated for, whether we paid our taxes, and so forth, just because we happened to walk in front of a camera on the way to the store or the doctor's office.

Total strangers don't know this information, but the government will because it claims to have the right to know it and there's no one telling them they don't because the citizens who can object aren't doing so. We Americans need to open our eyes and watch where we're going or like the people in Denver and Tampa, we're going to wake up and wonder how we got to where we are and realize that there's no way to turn back.

Lisa S. Dean is Vice President for Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • What has happened to our privacy? by Lisa S. Dean (May 14, 2001)
    House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Virginia Gov. James Gilmore are fighting the installation of cameras across America courtesy of the Interior Department, writes Lisa S. Dean

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