Face recognition mandates social planning

In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorists attacks, most people around the world seem willing to sacrifice some of their personal privacy for the sake of improving security.

In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorists attacks, most people around the world seem willing to sacrifice some of their personal privacy for the sake of improving security. However, some feel that government and law-enforcement agencies are invading their privacy with the use of biometric technologies, such as face recognition, fingerprinting, and iris scans, to authenticate their identity. Once again, the benefits of technology are confronted by the implications of social control.

For example, according to a recent news story by Alan Elsner, national correspondent at Reuters News (www.reuters.com), a face-recognition system is generating fears of "Big Brother is watching" in Virginia Beach, VA. The local police department installed video-surveillance cameras with face-recognition technology last year. Deputy police chief Greg Mullen reports that, prior to system approval, an extensive public education process was undertaken, hearings were held, and citizen groups and minority groups helped formulate usage policies. Consequently, the cameras may be used only for the purposes of finding felons, runaway children, and missing persons. All the images captured by the cameras are immediately deleted from the system if there is no match. In addition, a citizens' auditing committee can perform unannounced spot checks on police headquarters to make sure the technology is not being misused.

Mullen sees the system being linked to law-enforcement databases of other city, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies to track criminals and suspected terrorists. He claims that the cameras are no different in principle from a police officer standing on a street corner, just more efficient. Virginia Beach has used video cameras to survey its beachfronts for nearly ten years. Three of the city's 13 cameras are now connected to the face-recognition system, which has yet to produce an arrest.

Despite the attributes of the system, critics remain unfazed. They fear intimidation, harassment, and coercion from government and police agencies. They claim that the system has had little effect on the crime rate, but negatively affects peoples' behavior. Their studies show that face recognition works only about 30% of the time.

On its technical merits, face-recognition technology holds the promise of increased efficiency and effectivity in accomplishing personal protection. However, for social acceptance, an open, controlled, and detailed technology-approval procedure, such as accomplished by the Virginia Beach Police department, is necessary to ensure implementation by a concerned populace.

George Kotelly, Editor in Chief
georgek@pennwell.com

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