Activists and companies confront face recognition software

Formed in 1996, the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) fight against the abuse of public video surveillance. Four days before the Twin Towers fell, the SCP appeared in front of cameras monitoring Times Square to protest against the surveillance of public places.

Ever since the terrorist attacks, the Surveillance Camera Players' website has been sent threatening e-mails and visited by various military agencies. But the SCP are continuing their campaign against public surveillance and the two companies dedicated to the manufacture of face recognition software, originally developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

At this moment, when there's talk of reinforcing security, even at the expense of civil liberties, the security technology companies are feeling euphoric. Most of these companies are involved in identification and tracking systems. "Military technology is being used to improve video surveillance systems," explains Bill Brown, founder of the SCP. "In the USA, there are two companies that specialize in face recognition software: Visionics and Viisage, both of which have seen the value of their stocks triple since the attacks."

Face recognition software is a form of biometry, a technique by which a person can be identified from several meters away by analyzing points on his or her face and measuring the distances between them. Using this information, it is possible to know the name and access the file of any citizen who is entered in the database.

70,000 surveilled spectators

Viisage's technology was used without warning during the January 2001 Super Bowl at Tampa Bay [Florida]. All of the 70,000 spectators at the event were videotaped and watched in their seats. Visionics, by contrast, has decided to act more transparently. It gave advance warning that its cameras were going to be used experimentally to increase public safety in Florida's Ybor City.

"Both projects have been severely criticized by different civil rights groups, which doubt that they [the surveillance systems] can effectively prevent terrorism," Brown says.

After the attack, Michael Attick, president of Visionics, requested a law that would regulate the use of "FaceIt," the software developed by his company. "We must protect the privacy of the innocent majority," Attick declared.

But Tom Colatosti, president of Viisage, has tried to put a "spin" on the tragedy: "This [face recognition software] could have had a profound difference. I feel guilty for having been intimidated by some of this privacy silliness," Colatosti said, alluding to the protests against what happened at the Super Bowl. On its website, Viisage says -- without any shyness -- that it feels the pain of all Americans and wants to work to improve their security.

"Six days after the tragedy," Brown recalls, "Viisage put out a press release that announced that it had offered to give its technology to the FBI [for free], which seemed like a shameless attempt to get publicity for Viiage's products in the guise of calming the public's confusion and fear."

[Written by R. Bosco & S. Caldana and published on 4 October 2001 by Ciber Pais. Translated from the Spanish by an Internet robot and checked by a hooman being.]

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