The Many Faces of Viisage

There are two companies in America that specialize in the development of face recognition software, which is used to enhance the performance of video surveillance cameras: Visionics, based in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Viisage, based in Littleton, Massachusetts. Both companies have seen their stock prices soar (double or even triple in value) in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, and it is tempting to lump them together as "bad guys." But there seem to be important differences between the two companies. Perhaps we -- steadfast opponents of the use of their software products in any and all public places -- can turn these differences to our advantage.

Visionics seems to be run by people who are more interested in Science than Profit. As a result, Visionics hasn't allowed its software to be used in a surreptitious fashion (so far as the general public knows). For example, the residents of Ybor City -- a neighborhood in Tampa Bay, Florida -- have known from the beginning that the local police are using Visionics' software on a trial basis to enhance the city's surveillance cameras. The project is a very controversial one, and has triggered condemnations from the Law Enforcement Alliance of America and the American Civil Liberties Union. Significantly, Visionics responded to the contrversy by calling upon the United States Congress to produce legislation that covers the use of its software. Visionics seems to like transparency.

The people at Viisage seem impatient to start making big bucks from their product. As a result, they've allowed their software to be used in secret, as it was at the January 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa Bay. Though company president Tom Colatosti stated in July 2001 (see below) that "I believe it [use of the software in public places] is intrusive, and bad public policy," Viisage has expressed no interest whatsoever in having the federal government regulate the use of its software. Viisage seems to believe that it can regulate its opaque affairs on its own.

The differences between the two companies have become even clearer in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. Visionics CEO Joseph J. Atick has (it seems) been careful to avoid appearing as if he is exploiting the disaster to make a profit, and has even reaffirmed the necessity of Federal regulation of the use of his company's software. "We really have to protect the privacy of the innocent majority," Atick was reported to have said on 24 September 2001. "We're not going to walk away from the privacy issues we've previously raised."

Contrast this position with that of Viisage CEO Tom Colatosti, who stated in one post-attack interview: "This [face recognition software] could have had a profound difference. It's clear that some of these suspects were in the FBI database. What has us frustrated is that we allowed ourselves to be intimidated by some of this privacy silliness. I carry guilt for not being able to make that point better." What a change of attitude! In other words, back in July 2001, Colatosti didn't really believe that the use of his software in public was "intrusive, and bad public policy." That was just privacy silliness, to which he had to pay a certain amount of lip-service because public opinion at the time was strongly against what's going on in Tampa Bay. But now that public opinion has changed (or so we are told), Colatosti can stop worrying about respecting the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and start saying what he thinks people want to hear right now.

Perhaps to assuage Colatosti's no doubt completely genuine feelings of guilt, Viisage released the following press release:

Viisage Technology Offers FBI Free Use of Face Recognition Technology to Aid Investigation

LITTLETON, Mass.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Sept. 17, 2001--Viisage Technology, Inc. (NASDAQ: VISG - news), the leader in face-recognition technology and identification systems and solutions that improve security and conveniently protect personal privacy, announced that it has offered the FBI free use of Viisage's face-recognition technology to aid in the apprehension or identification of the persons responsible for the terrorism in New York City and Washington.

This offer was made in writing to the FBI and was disclosed on a CNET news interview Friday by Viisage President and CEO, Tom Colatosti.

"It is clear that the use of face-recognition technology can make a real difference in identifying terrorists. Our technology was used with great success at Super Bowl XXXV, where the security concerns were similar," said Mr. Colatosti.

He went on to say, "We are facing a national tragedy, unlike anything America has ever endured - our prayers and sympathies go out to all the families and friends of all the innocent victims. While there is now much interest in our technology, we in no way want to profit off the pain and death of our fellow Americans. While so many are so generously giving so much - thousands of relief volunteers working tirelessly around the clock, ordinary citizens donating food and blood, and Corporations giving financial gifts, we want to give what we are able to uniquely contribute."

Viisage Technology is the world leader in biometric face-recognition technology and identification systems and solutions that enhance consumer convenience, improve security and protect personal privacy. Originally developed at MIT, Viisage's patented, accurate, non-intrusive and cost-effective face-recognition technology is widely acknowledged for its unmatched performance including speed in real-time applications, scalability for managing large image databases, and systems integration for complete customer solutions.

Viisage provides a full family of face recognition products. FaceEXPLORER(TM) is a powerful and scalable image retrieval and analysis database product, used to combat identity fraud -- it is implemented in the world's largest face recognition system with more than eight million enrolled images. FaceFINDER(TM), acclaimed for its processing speed, is the industry's most widely implemented surveillance and identification system -- it is installed in more than 80 casinos worldwide and has been deployed to improve security at premier sporting events. FaceNET(TM) provides secure authentication for PC, Internet and e-commerce connections. FacePIN(TM) offers consumers convenient and private verification for point-of-sale transactions such as ATMs. FacePASS(TM) is a practical security solution for keyless entry to secure facilities, such as offices, dormitories and government facilities. FaceTOOLS(TM) is a leadership Software Developers Kit that enables application providers the ability to develop and customize unique customer and market applications.

For a statement released just six days after "a national tragedy, unlike anything America has ever endured," this press release is very badly written. It contains far too much about Viisage and its products, and far too little about the tragedy and the investigation into it. Viisage is clearly trying to exploit the disaster, despite Colatosti's declaration that "we in no way want to profit off the pain and death of our fellow Americans." He obviously knows that good publicity -- especially at a time like this -- can be even more profitable to his company than big booms in sales and stock prices. If Colatosti were really serious about giving to the truly needy without expecting a return, he'd donate money, just like the other "generous" corporations!

As for Colatosti's claim that "our technology was used with great success at Super Bowl XXXV, where the security concerns were similar," one can't help wonder if the man knows what he's saying. Not a single terrorist was identified by the computer-enmhanced surveillance cameras at the Super Bowl! Indeed, the only "criminals" identified in the huge crowd were a few measely ticket scalpers, who obviously tend to frequent such events. Such meagre results clearly do not justify the use of a system that violated the privacy and public assembly rights of 71,000 law-abiding people. One can also say with equal certainty that computer-assisted surveillance cameras -- no matter how many of them are installed in American cities -- will do nothing to prevent terrorist attacks against the United States. No one knows the identity of the terrorist (not to mention have a good photograph of his or her face) until the attack has been carried out. And by then it's too late.

-- 23 September 2001.

Note added 4 September 2003: Visionics merged with Identix. In April 2002, Tom Colatosti announced that he would be resigning from Viisage on 1 June 2002. He is now Chief Executive Officer of American Security Ventures, a consulting firm he founded. Note well the story reproduced below.

Civil rights or just sour grapes? An executive says using face-recognition technology in Ybor is wrong. Critics note he lost the contract. Written by Amy Herdy and published in the 3 August 2001 issue of The St. Petersburg Times.

TAMPA -- The president of the company that supplied controversial TV surveillance at the Super Bowl says he declined to keep the system in Ybor City after the game for philosophical reasons. Using the system in Ybor City now is an "encroachment of personal privacy," said Tom Colatosti, president and chief executive officer of Viisage Technology. "Neighborhood scanning is an unreasonable application" of the face-recognition software. Still, the company had no problems using the system in Ybor City during the week leading up to the Super Bowl and, city officials say, sought the now-controversial deal won by a competitor, Visionics Corp. of New Jersey.

The Tampa police official responsible for the Ybor City system now in place calls Colatosti's criticism "sour grapes." "I couldn't believe it when I heard it," said police Detective Bill Todd. "The last time they called me . . . they wanted to know why we were going with Visionics. They were still trying to get our business." Todd, who has vigorously defended the current system despite criticism from around the country, questioned Colatosti's logic. The company had no philosophical concerns about using the system in Ybor City during the Super Bowl, he said, so why now? "Your rights don't change just because it's a special event," he said.

Colatosti countered by arguing that the Super Bowl drew unusually large crowds to Tampa and Ybor City. "It was part of an overall security program for that weekend -- that's the distinction," said Colatosti, whose company is supplying the technology to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. "We don't want our company and our technology sullied by a radical use of the technology." The company wants to distance itself from the negative publicity Visionics has received because it has its sights set on an even bigger deal: the Olympics. "There's been talk of use during the Olympics," he said. "Out of public pressure, they may not want to use it." That contract could be worth "anywhere from $100,000 to a couple of million," he said.

[...] Colatosti of Viisage contends his company never bid for the contract Visionics won. Todd called Colatosti's statements "less than truthful." A former vendor for Viisage who now sells Visionics equipment confirmed Todd's version. David Watkins said he worked until February for Graphco Technologies, which supplied the Viisage software for the Super Bowl. "They would have loved to have had it," he said of the deal Visionics won. But Viisage's system did not work properly, he said. "Their technology works if you have a compliant subject," Watkins said. "The software does not work well in the surveillance setting. It does not work fast enough to react to the image it sees."

Colatosti disputed Watkins' account. "We did great" during the Super Bowl, he said. Nineteen people matched known criminals in the company's database, he said. Though no arrests were made because of the vast crowds at the stadium, the company won "tens of millions of dollars in free publicity."

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