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Is face recognition just high-tech snake oil?

By Mike Krause
web posted January 14, 2002

Last July, Tampa, Florida began using face-recognition technology to scan the faces of citizens engaging in such noxious behavior as strolling down the street, to compare to a database of criminals and runaways.

This January, using open-record requests, the American Civil Liberties Union found that the system was essentially abandoned within months of its rollout.

While no positive matches were made to the criminal database, the system did manage to match up "male and female subjects and subjects with significant differences in age and weight."

It is an understatement to say that these are serious times. And our war on terrorism a serious task. And whether it's mapping the faces of driver's license holders, scanning faces of passengers at DIA or general scrutiny of the public as a crime-fighting tool, face recognition is worth at least some serious discussion.

But the overblown statements made by those who wish to sell us all facial recognition technology and those in the media and government who regurgitate them is not just hard to take seriously, but even harder to stomach.

For example, days after Sept. 11th, the CEO of Viisage Technology claimed, "If our technology had been deployed, the likelihood is (the terrorists) would have been recognized."

Pretty outrageous, considering it was Viisage's system used to scan football fans at the Superbowl last year where, according to a Tampa detective who worked on the test , "I looked at some of those side-by-side pictures and they weren't the same person."

Even more outrageous in that most of the hijackers weren't on any watch list and their faces were unknown.

Or try this sourceless claim from a Denver Post reporter on the DMV face-mapping plan: "It doesn't matter if you gain 200 pounds or go bald between photographs. Short of plastic surgery, the camera will recognize you."

Strange then that a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found a 43 per cent failure rate for pictures of the same person taken 1 1/2 years apart.

So perhaps the answer is to roll it out on a mass scale, like they have in Great Britain.

In the early '90s, in response to IRA bombings in London's financial district, the government installed a "ring of steel" surveillance system at the city's entrances. From there, it took on a life of its own.

Less than a decade later, fueled by outlandish government campaign themes such as John Major's "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" and media-whipped fear mongering, there are over two million surveillance cameras throughout Great Britain linked to various biometric databases and the average Briton is now photographed by an estimated 300 separate cameras in a single day.

Has it stopped any terrorists? Jeffrey Rosen, writing for the New York Times Magazine, flew over the pond to find out.

Rosen asked the City of London press officer, while standing in a monitoring room where officers were busy scanning the licenses of traffic offenders, if they had caught any terrorists. "No, not using this technology, no." But there is a bright side, "The technology here is geared up to terrorism, the fact that we are getting ordinary people - burglars stealing cars - as a result of it is sort of a bonus."

Has it caught criminals? The most often cited success of facial recognition is the London borough of Newham, where a system of over 200 cameras using Visionics Corp.'s face recognition technology is credited with a significant drop in crime since 1998, a statistic trumpeted by Visionics.

What is left out is that face-recognition has not resulted in a single arrest, nor do the people who run the system even know who is in the database. Not that it matters; the deterrent lies with the signs posted throughout Newham telling criminals that cameras are watching and that they (the police) know who they are, where they live and what crimes they have committed.

Of course, "it's not true," Newham's monitoring chief readily admitted.

Any drop in crime due to face-recognition then is attributable to the false public statements about Newham's system rather than the efficacy of the system itself.

Which would explain why it took an open records request to discover that the Tampa system was out of action.

Britons, it seems, have given up much, but have received little in return beyond an illusion of safety.

In the old days, snake oil salesman would be tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail. Those days may be past, but that doesn't mean we can't at least ignore the scoundrels who offer us such illusions in deadly serious times.

The Independence Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy research focuses on economic growth, education reform, local government effectiveness, and Constitutional rights. Mike Krause is a Research Associate with the Independence Institute. © 2002, Independence Institute.

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