Super Bowl 2001 fans were secretly treated to a mass, biometric scan in which video cameras tied to a temporary law-enforcement command centre digitised their faces and compared them against photographic lists of known malefactors.
Everyone entering Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida last Sunday was subjected to the surveillance system cameras, set up at the entrance turnstiles. No notice or disclosure was ever given, and no one, therefore, had an opportunity to decline to enter the stadium if they should have objected to this unprecedented treatment.
The faceFINDER equipment and software used are the products of Viisage Technology, which supplies it to the US Department of Justice Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS); numerous state corrections authorities and driving license administrations; gambling casinos which use it to compare patrons' faces against pictures of known cheats; and several governments.
"Viisage Technology has pilot programs with Western European governments to provide face recognition surveillance systems that leverage our existing faceFINDER technology. The systems will identify criminals and terrorists in high security areas. The customer will have the ability to capture a constant stream of live video and compare each face image against their face "list" of bad guys. The project could lead to the integration of several faceFINDER systems and databases across all of Western Europe," the company cheerfully notes.
The Viisage software translates the characteristics of a face into set of numbers, called an eigenface, which is used for comparisons in real-time against a database of stored images.
"The Company's face-recognition technology is unique because of its capabilities of both rapid and accurate real-time acquisition as well as its scalability to databases containing millions of faces. Therefore, the software can instantly calculate an individual's eigenface from either live video or a still digital image, and then search a database of millions in only a few seconds in order to find similar or matching images."
'Similar or matching.' This clearly acknowledges the possibility that innocent civilians going about their peaceable business may be stopped, hassled, even arrested, merely for resembling someone naughty. This raises sticky issues regarding the presumption of innocence many of us were encouraged to believe in during our grammar-school civics lessons. Is there a violation of this principle when a person is required to produce evidence that they are not, in fact, the evil bastard whom they unfortunately resemble?
Of course technology is neither good nor bad in itself; the scary questions arise when one considers the ways it's to be used, or abused. While we can see numerous benefits in legitimate identification from technology like Viisage's, we've also not seen a technology so ripe for positively Orwellian abuse. ®