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    Wired: Jan. 28, 2001: Hey, Don’t Tampa With My Privacy

    Wired looks back nine years to Jan. 28, 2001, when facial-recognition technology was used at the Super Bowl in an attempt to pick out criminals among the crowd. (Read more about facial-recognition technology and its privacy implications in law enforcement and marketing after the jump.):

    Cops and engineers from Graphco, the company that built the FaceTrac system, huddled in the control room, as the system scanned the faces of ticket-holders, looking for known troublemakers and bombers. The system set off alarms in the press before the big game, which one magazine called the Snooper Bowl, and the technology set off quite a few alarms on the big day, when the system decided it had found its man at Raymond James Stadium.

    But there were no touchdowns for facial recognition that day, with not a single bad guy caught. Undeterred, Tampa Bay police deployed the system on a popular street, until they were forced to admit to the American Civil Liberties Union a year later that they’d mostly given up on the multimillion-dollar system without having snagged a single fugitive.

    Wired notes that, though this experiment failed, law enforcement officials continue to attempt to use facial-recognition technology broadly:

    Tampa patrolmen now use digital cameras to take pictures of citizens at traffic stops and compare them against a database of 7.5 million mug shots. Nearly 500 people have been arrested thanks to the system, though there are no cameras watching every face on a city street — nor any at the entrance to the stadium, either.

    That’s because facial recognition — on a mass scale — remains an engineer’s challenge and a civil libertarian’s nightmare. Photo angles and lighting complicate the task of matching faces to photos.

    However, new 3-D solutions that take facial depth into account promise to overcome those problems. The federal Department of Homeland Security continues handing out millions of dollars of Recovery Act funds to cities and airports for more security cameras, and the dreams of perfect law enforcement techniques aren’t likely to die anytime soon.

    In October, the Associated Press reported that FBI agents in North Carolina are accessing biometric data of innocent Americans, “using facial-recognition technology on millions of motorists, comparing driver’s license photos with pictures of convicts in a high-tech analysis of chin widths and nose sizes.”

    Facial-recognition technology also is being used for marketing purposes, and often consumers don’t know the technology is being deployed. Some companies are using billboards with cameras (and facial-recognition technology) to watch people watching ads in order to improve their marketing. For more information about digital signage and its privacy implications, read “The One-Way-Mirror Society: Privacy Implications of the new Digital Signage Networks” (pdf), a recent report by the World Privacy Forum’s Pam Dixon (a friend and colleague).

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