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Face it: Face recognition is ripe for abuse

Coming to airports and squad cars near you–shaking down more innocent citizens who look like suspected criminals. 02/04/01 ReleVents hed: Face it: Face recognition is ripe for abuse dek: Coming to airports and squad cars near you–shaking down more innocent citizens who look like suspected criminals. by James Mathewson

Well, I’m finally going on vacation to a secret destination in Florida. I say it’s secret because it’s the last place in Florida where you won’t get stuck behind construction vehicles wherever you drive–and I want to keep it that way. I’m going on vacation to get away from traffic, noise, and pollution, and to be blissfully out of range of my cell phone. The last thing I want is to thrust myself into the melee that is the ongoing Florida building boom.

I also seek a return to a simpler time, when I could walk into a restaurant with my wife Beth–who’s of Persian descent–and not be looked up and down with suspicion. And this sleepy little fishing town is just that sort of place. Once we get past airport security, we can be free from that sort of racial profiling. This will be my first experience with new airport security supposedly implemented since 9/11. Beth has flown twice since then, without incident. But her good fortune might change, given all the news about airport security breaches. I expect racial profiling to play a more prominent role in airport security–and a more sophisticated kind of profiling, not exclusively based on race, to take its place in most airports by this time next year. It’s called face recognition, and it’s already in use in two Florida towns, including a resort in West Palm Beach, in the heart of Florida’s go-go East Coast.

I wrote about the first implementation of the Face It system–in a Tampa business district–last Independence Day, and my views have not changed much. (It’s funny how out of touch those sentiments seem since 9/11.) While some biometrics applications, such as iris scanning, will improve our security without impinging on our freedoms, most trade security for freedom. In some cases, this balancing act is necessary. But face recognition tips the scales too far away from individual liberties for my comfort. Iris scanning allows for a unique identification. DNA fingerprints are only duplicated every 500,000 individuals. Face recognition allows for duplication every 10,000 individuals, by my estimates. In an airport of any size, chances are pretty good that two people with the same face recognition patterns will show up on the same day.

Readers familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “The Wrong Man” might have a pretty good idea of the horrifying consequences of such mistaken identity. Yes, face recognition is better than racial profiling, but not much. While racial profiling is a crude way of finding suspects, the method presumes innocence until a more thorough investigation can determine whether the suspect will be accused. Face It purports to be judge, jury, and executioner by giving the false expectation that face patterns are unique identifiers. If Face It is used like a sophisticated form of racial profiling, with a heavy dose of presumption of innocence, it could be a vast improvement over the latter. My worry is that it will recall early uses of DNA samples, which led to the conviction of people who had solid alibis. Since most of those convictions have been overturned, DNA evidence is now used more often to prove innocence. Perhaps Face It could be used appropriately in conjunction with DNA. If the DNA doesn’t match, the suspect is free to go. But even this seems to presume guilt until proven innocent. And not all crime scenes contain DNA. The more I think about it, the more I’m troubled with Face It technology.

The latest news on Face It is perhaps the most troubling. In conjunction with a new wireless technology, police officers will get alerts on their cell phones if Face It recognizes a suspected criminal in their area. If used like police sketches, these alerts can be indeed helpful. But again, the presumption is that Face It provides better identification than a police sketch. This, in turn, leads to ignoring the presumption of innocence. And innocent citizens are no better off than they are when they walk through airport security and are strip-searched simply because of their ethnicity. It seems to me Washington needs to develop standards on how Face It is used before the technology is adopted in a more widespread way.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and

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