Among the most notable images captured by the cameras along Seventh Avenue in Ybor City, Fla., were protestors flaunting Groucho Marx glasses and displaying their middle fingers in disdain. Officials are betting, however, that the cameras, equipped with facial-recognition software, will one day identify someone wanted by the law.
In its infancy, the controversial biometric technology has galvanized citizen groups and created odd bedfellows. Consider this: As the protesters rallied along Seventh Avenue, the ACLU and conservative House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Tex., were forming the unlikeliest of unions to make a stand against using the technology in a way they consider a blow to every American's right to privacy.
Each of the 36 Ybor City cameras was equipped this summer with Visionics' FaceIt technology, which "reads" faces in a crowd. The software creates a digital map of an individual's face by translating the contours into mathematical formulas that are nearly as distinguishable as fingerprints. It then searches a database for a match. The database contains digital photos of wanted persons, such as felons with outstanding warrants or missing children. If a match is found, the software alerts police.
The technology gained notoriety in this country when it was used during the last Super Bowl to scan the crowds for known criminals, though it found none. It is now being considered in other areas, including Virginia Beach, Va., which is grappling with the idea of placing facial recognition cameras at its Oceanfront. Colorado and West Virginia are planning to use the software in conjunction with driver's license photos to intercept duplicate or fake licenses. West Virginia also has the software on 24-hour alert, searching Internet pornography sites for images of missing or exploited children.
The technology is also lauded in other parts of the world. In Britain, it is credited with reducing crime by 34 percent in a London borough. The Israeli government uses the FaceIt software to keep tabs on the flow of individuals entering the Gaza Strip, and the Keflavik International Airport in Iceland plans to add FaceIt surveillance to its security system to guard against terrorism.
In the United States, the technology is causing a stir. Advocates say the innocent have nothing to worry about. Critics argue implementing the technology the way Ybor City has is intrusive and amounts to "facial frisking" without reasonable suspicion. They also say it's Big Brother looking over your shoulder and could be used to intimidate government critics.
"These systems, in essence, put innocent people into a virtual police lineup without any evidence that the person in the lineup is involved in crime and without that person even knowing that they've been put in this police lineup," said Craig Nojeim, associate director and chief legislative counsel of the ACLU's national office.
Federal and local government representatives are concerned. Armey has asked relevant House committees to hold hearings on law enforcement's use of the surveillance technology. In Jacksonville, Fla., Councilwoman-at-Large Gwen Chandler-Thompson introduced legislation that would ban the use of facial-recognition technology by the Sheriff's Department and other city agencies.
The debate centers on the actions law enforcement takes after the software identifies a wanted person, what happens to the images of innocent people captured by the cameras and whether citizens should be under surveillance on a public street.
"Clearly when you are on a street with 30,000 people, there is very little expectation of privacy," said Tampa, Fla., City Councilman Bob Buckhorn. "With all due respect to the ACLU, this is not your bedroom."
But opponents contend that the cameras shouldn't be used to generate suspicion. "On the streets, the police can't stop you and demand ID without what the Supreme Court has called 'reasonable suspicion,'" Nojeim said.
Reasonable suspicion is different from probable cause, the necessary criterion for searching a residence or frisking a suspect. Reasonable