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Tampa scraps facial recognition

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Tampa police eliminate facial-recognition system

Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. -- Civil-rights advocates celebrated a decision by Tampa police to scrap a highly touted facial-recognition software system that was designed to scan the city's entertainment district for wanted criminals.

But after two years, it yielded no positive identifications and no arrests.

"It was of no benefit to us, and it served no real purpose," Capt. Bob Guidara said Wednesday, emphasizing the decision to drop the software was based on its ineffectiveness rather than privacy issues.

Tampa became the first city in the United States to install the software in June 2001 to scan faces in Ybor City nightlife district and check them against a database of more than 24,000 felons, sexual predators and runaway children.

But critics said it violated privacy rights, forcing Ybor City visitors to be in what amounted to an electronic police lineup without their consent.

Darlene Williams, chairwoman of the Tampa area chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she's glad it's gone.

"People have the right to be anonymous, and not to be put in a police lineup for committing the offense of walking down a public street," Williams said.

"As a culture we have always given police the tools that are deemed appropriate to do their jobs. (But) this was handled without public input or foreknowledge, and that was wrong."

New Jersey-based Visionics Corp. had offered the city a free trial use of a the program, called FaceIt. It was installed on closed-circuit cameras that police used to monitor Ybor City crowds on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

A police officer in a room three blocks away monitored video images and could pick out faces in the crowd to scan and run through a criminal database to search for matches.

Initially, it could be used only with one of the system's 36 cameras at a time, but an upgrade last year allowed use on up to six of the cameras.

Critics compared it to George Orwell's novel "1984" and Texas Rep. Dick Armey, the U.S. House majority leader at the time, called for congressional hearings on the technology. Protesters donned bandanas, masks and Groucho glasses on one busy Saturday night to show their contempt.

Police are at a loss to explain why the software wasn't effective, since it seemed to work fine in controlled testing, Guidara said.

Meir Kahtan, a spokesman for the company, now known Identix Inc. after a merger between Visionics and the security technology company Identix, declined to answer questions on the matter Wednesday.

The company's only comment came in a one-sentence statement that seems to suggest privacy issues were behind the Tampa's decision.

"Identix has always stated that this technology requires safeguards, and that as a society we need to be comfortable with its use."

Guidara said the closed-circuit cameras installed in 1997 will remain in Ybor City without the face-scanning capabilities. They are effective as a deterrent and have helped police foil crimes, he said.

Face-scanning technology is still being used in other cities. The airport, jail and jail visitation areas in Pinellas County are using it, but it has never resulted in an arrest, officials said.

Virginia Beach, Va., installed the software on closed-circuit cameras along the city's boardwalk last summer. While it has never produced a hit or an arrest, police spokesman Sgt. Max Hayden said it performed well in controlled tests and may be a deterrent to criminals. Signs along the boardwalk inform visitors of its use.

"It would not be prudent to take technology offline when it's been up and running for a year, based on another city deciding not to use it," Hayden said.

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