TCS Daily

Haven't I Seen You Some Place Before?

By David Mastio - June 27, 2001 12:00 AM

Probably the only thing most Americans have heard of "facial recognition technology" was the bleating of the American Civil Liberties Union when the technology was used to search for wanted criminals among the incoming crowd at last January's Super Bowl. A few probably remember its use in an old James Bond flick.

In the Bond film, it was a combo of a criminal database and the ability to sort through the pictures electronically - much faster than the traditional picture books that show up in every cop show.

At the Super Bowl it was more than that. Strategically placed cameras snapped photos, instantly digitized them into a mathematical map (an algorithm) that then searched against the database of wanted and suspected criminals -- all within a second. The ACLU went off the deep end because, well, that's what they do. They were especially mad, however, about the fact that all the average Joes walking into the Super Bowl were told only that a video camera was in use. Not quite full disclosure.

And if you can rely on the ACLU folks to be right about one thing, it's the PR angle. "Facial recognition" is easily the most scary "biometric technology" for one reason - you don't have to know when it's being used on you. Fingerprint scans, iris scans, voice recognition and hand geometry all work in ways that are obvious to people they're being used on. The invisibility is why casinos were the earliest adopters of "facial recognition" as a means to ferret out and build a shared database of cheats.

It doesn't take much imagination to see the big-brother applications of FRT. New York City already has a network of cameras through much of Manhattan to act as the eyes of the police. Add a little computer power and FRT and, voila, you've got a database of who walked past key points, when and how often.

Don't think that could happen? New technology that allows instant electronic payment of tolls (EZ-Pass) has already been used in criminal and civil cases in the U.S. to provide a record of who went where when. In England, cities already use networks of FRT-enabled cameras in high-crime areas.

Commercial applications could be eerie. You walk into a restaurant - click, a camera takes your picture - your picture, credit card records and dining choices are combined in a database. The local grocery store buys access and combines its discount card database with the restaurant info to send you coupons for things you like but haven't bought in their store. You go to the store - click - an electronic screen on your cart welcomes you by name - pointing out the current discounts on things you buy while helpfully printing out recipes for favorite meals you usually go out to eat. Maybe not Big Brother, but at least annoying Little Sister.

But while attention has focused on the inelegantly dubbed "Snooper Bowl," a gaggle of biometrics companies are rolling out their technology across the country in department stores, gas stations, government installations and high-security Internet networks. Think Wal-Mart, NASA, Microsoft, Albertson's and the Pentagon.

So is this a threat to average folks' privacy? So far, real victims are hard to find. FRT hasn't produced embarrassing evidence in divorce court, nailed a politician for sleeping around or resulted in a lawsuit about business misusing the data somehow.

That's not to say those things won't happen. New technology always gets used to invade people's privacy. A railroad company has already been nailed for using genetic tests to discriminate. Another company got busted for performing pregnancy tests under the guise of drug testing urine.

And there are some disturbing developments that have gone largely unreported in the fracas over the Super Bowl. At about the same time, the National Security Agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. government-led Biometric Consortium, which includes industry and academia, released what they call the "Common Biometric Exchange File Format" ( This technology could allow different biometric systems to work together and build a more extensive database of presumably private identifying details about people or at least allow different biometric databases to work together.

But there is a real threat to privacy - and today it's not the government or business. It's criminals. In 1997, the Treasury Department reported 44 instances of "identity theft." In 1998, it doubled. In 1999, it tripled. In the year 2000, it more than doubled again to 617 instances. Real lives at least temporarily ruined by a criminal stealing their lives and hard-earned credit to go on a shopping spree. The results can be devastating, taking years to remove bad information from credit reports. Business reportedly gets left with the bills for millions in bad debts.

It may be ironic, but FRT may be a big part of solving that real privacy problem. Smart credit cards are already being tested that include the mathematical map of the user's face. Someone who steals the card won't match the map, thus, no unauthorized use. In Illinois, New York and a half-dozen other states welfare agencies and transportation departments use the systems to weed out welfare and driver's license fraud.

They're even coming to check cashing. A company called InnoVentry has developed a uniquely secure check-cashing kiosk that uses FRT to weed out fraud. In less than three years they've spread to more than 1,200 stores in 27 states, including Kroger, Wal-Mart, Albertson's and Texaco. FRT will be part of Microsoft's new ".net" e-commerce effort as a security measure.

Facial recognition technology is creepy. It could be horribly abused. But implemented in a reasonable way, particularly by the private sector in securing transactions like check cashing and credit use, it would spare far more Americans a criminal invasion of privacy than it would likely threaten them with some new speculative intrusion into their personal space.

That's something worth smiling about. So take that frown off your face.

David Mastio is an editorial writer for USA Today.

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