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The facial recognition technology used on 72,000 unsuspecting football fans at this year's Super Bowl enhanced, rather than injured, individual privacy, the CEO of the company behind the controversial system argued at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts Wednesday.

"That was a significant technological feat that's been widely acknowledged in the law enforcement community as a success," said Viisage Technology CEO Thomas Colatosti, speaking on a panel at the conference. "Yet, amazingly, instead of being hailed as a boon to public safety....it was criticized as a threat to privacy."

Tampa police deployed Viisage's video biometric system at the entrance turnstiles of Super Bowl XXXV, where cameras captured each attendee's face, digitized it, and sent the image off to a bank of computers.

The computers measured facial characteristics, including the distance between the eyes, slope of the nose, and angle of the cheeks, to compare every attendee's face against stored photos of convicted and suspected criminals and terrorists, garnered from local and federal law enforcement databases. The system reportedly made 19 matches, most of them known ticket scalpers and pickpockets.

Colatosti told a skeptical audience that because the facial recognition system didn't store any of the faces it scanned, it was less intrusive than conventional video surveillance systems.

"Reflect on it thoughtfully and unemotionally for a moment," Colatosti urged. "At the Super Bowl, aside from the 19 matches, we don't know anything about the attendees....In fact, the only thing we know about those faces is that they are not in the law enforcement database."

Eventually, facial recognition systems in public spaces will reach the same level of wide acceptance as luggage X-ray machines at airports, Colatosti predicted. "There is nothing private about a person's face....It's seen by hundreds of people every day."

ACLU: legal standards needed

But Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the ACLU, argued that computerized facial recognition perceives far more than a human observer can, and law enforcement should be required to show 'probable cause' and obtain court authorization before using it.

If left unchecked, Steinhardt said, the technology will permit government on all levels to perform unprecedented monitoring of its citizens. By way of example, Steinhardt pointed out that motor vehicle records in most states include digital photos of all licensed drivers. "The technology now exists....to photograph everybody who attended a demonstration and identify who they are" from those records, said Steinhardt.

"The central debate is going to be whether we bow to this concept, that if the technology allows you to do it, there's no longer a reasonable expectation of privacy," Steinhardt said.

Colatosti countered that most privacy invasions aren't perpetrated by governments, but by criminals. By identifying people based on their faces, Viisage's technology could eliminate identify theft and protect privacy, he argued.

Journalist Simson Garfinkel, author of Database Nation, said he believed the technology will inevitably become ubiquitous, deployed in grocery stores to spot known shoplifters and people with outstanding arrest warrants.

The entire four-person panel agreed that facial recognition is here to stay.

"The technologies are here," said Samir Nanavati, a partner with the International Biometric Group, an industry advisory body. "They can help the bottom lines of business; they can help people in their day to day lives, if used responsibly."

© 2001 SecurityFocus.com, all rights reserved.

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