On 11 July 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union published the following statement, which was headlined "Proliferation of Surveillance Devices Threatens Privacy."
WASHINGTON -- Over the past several days, a troubling expansion in the way technology is being used in the surveillance of ordinary Americans has come to light. In response, we are today joining together to call on all state and local governments to stop using these dangerous technologies now before privacy in America is so diminished that it becomes nothing more than a fond memory.
Majority Leader Armey will ask the General Accounting Office to study the extent to which the federal government is funding facial-recognition technologies. In addition, he will ask the relevant House Committees to hold hearings on law enforcement use of surveillance technology. The ACLU supports these requests.
Tampa, Florida drew attention to the importance of these issues with its highly publicized use of facial recognition technology during this year's snooperbowl. The city recently took the next step by using the software to scan individuals in an entertainment district [Ybor City]. Virginia Beach announced this week that it will seek state funding to install similar facial-recognition cameras in its oceanfront areas.
In Colorado, the Department of Motor Vehicles is moving ahead with a plan approved by the Legislature to create a database containing computerized three-dimensional facial maps of all those applying for driver's licenses.
There is an alarming potential for misuse of all of these systems. Used in conjunction with facial-recognition software, for example, the Colorado database could allow the public movements of every citizen in the state to be identified, tracked, recorded and stored.
These surveillance systems are ineffective and will lead the police to stop people who have done nothing wrong. According to The Los Angeles Times, a recent study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that digital comparisons of posed photos of the same person taken 18 months apart triggered false rejection by computers 43 percent of the time. Police relying on this technology will be led too often to stop and question the innocent instead of the suspect.
These cameras do not generate suspicion adequate to trigger a law enforcement stop. Instead, they may lead to high-tech "racial profiling" should surveillance cameras be placed in areas populated primarily by members of ethnic and racial minority groups.
We are extremely troubled by this unprecedented expansion in high-tech surveillance in the United States. We believe that technology should not be used to create a "virtual line up" of Americans who are not suspected of having done anything wrong.
The threats to privacy in America are all too real. We believe the privacy risk outweighs any benefits that these devices may offer. It's time to take notice of what has happened to privacy in America today.
Like the press release issued on 3 July 2001 by the Law Enforcement Alliance of America (LEAA), this joint statement by Dick Armey and the ACLU on the use of face recognition software is encouraging to the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP), who have been campaigning against computer-enhanced surveillance cameras since October 2000. Statements such as these get noticed and reported upon by the mainstream media, which increases the general public's awareness that there is indeed something important going on. But the SCP find that the Armey/ACLU statement is even weaker than the one issued by LEAA, which was, as we recall, pretty weak.
Unlike LEAA, which based its positions upon the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the positions enunciated by Armey and the ACLU aren't based on a single law or legal decision. Aren't these guys lawyers? Why is it that the cops know about the Fourth Amendment, and the lawyers don't?
Unlike LEAA, which pledged to "introduce legislation at the state and federal level" that would "ban the use of these [computer-enhanced] systems altogether" (emphasis added), the Armey/ACLU statement limits its field of action to "all state and local governments." Furthermore, the Armey/ACLU statement doesn't mention the passage of legislation at the state and local levels; it simply wants these governments "to [voluntarily] stop using these dangerous technologies now." Obvious concessions to Dick Armey's demagoguery concerning the role of the federal government in American society, these proposals are virtually worthless. As this country learned in the early 1960s, state provisions concerning civil rights are meaningless unless they are backed up by federal laws that have "teeth," that is, that don't work by voluntary adherence, and thus guarantee equal protection to all.
Unlike LEAA, which didn't say anything that was obviously wrong or stupid in its press release, the Armey-ACLU statement has at least two glaring mistakes: 1) it wants the "General Accounting Office to study the extent to which the federal government is funding facial-recognition technologies," when everyone else already knows that the basic research into and development of face recognition software was funded by the U.S. military, which has been "working on the problem" for the last decade; and 2) it says that face recognition software "may lead to high-tech 'racial profiling' should surveillance cameras be placed in areas populated primarily by members of ethnic and racial minority groups," as if surveillance cameras weren't yet placed in such areas, when they already are (for example, Ybor City is mostly populated by Cubanos, and Virginia Beach is mostly populated by African-Americans).
Unlike LEAA, which criticized Visionics for allowing its software to be purchased, installed and used by self-avowed authorities that had not yet developed legal frameworks for its use (and thus violating the official privacy principles of the International Biometric Industry Association, of which Visionics is a member), the Armey/ACLU statement makes no mention whatsoever of either Visionics or any other manufacturer of face recognition systems. Another obvious concession to Dick Armey's demagoguery: government (be it local, state or federal) should not be involved in decisions "best left to the marketplace." But note well the wisdom of a recently passed Canadian law known as the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, which makes it illegal for any private company to collect personal information on an individual without his or her express consent or a warrant. In the words of The Vancouver Sun, "last month, in the first ruling under the act, federal privacy commissioner George Radwanski ruled that a Yellowknife-based security company had violated federal privacy laws by mounting four surveillance cameras aimed at city streets on the roof of a local drug store."
Despite these important differences, the LEAA and Armey/ACLU statements share the same basic weakness: both refuse to see that everything they say concerning face recognition software applies to "traditional" or non-computer-enhanced surveillance cameras. If the first are unacceptable in a democracy such as ours, then so are the second.
Contact the Surveillance Camera Players
By e-mail SCP@notbored.org
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998