Super Bowl, or Snooper Bowl?
High-tech security system makes some nervous of Big Brother
By Vickie Chachere
TAMPA, Fla. — Super Bowl, or Snooper Bowl?
As 100,000 fans stepped through the turnstiles at Super Bowl XXXV, a camera snapped their image and matched it against a computerized police lineup of known criminals, from pickpockets to international terrorists.
It’s not a new kind of surveillance. But its use at the Super Bowl — dubbed “Snooper Bowl” by critics — has highlighted a debate about the balance between individual privacy and public safety.
Law enforcement officials say what was done at the Super Bowl is no more intrusive than routine video surveillance that most people encounter each day as they’re filmed in stores, banks, office buildings or apartment buildings.
But to critics, the addition of the face-recognition system can essentially put everyone in a police lineup.
“I think it presents a whole different picture of America,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida.
The technology, called biometrics, was created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1990s and has been adapted for dozens of uses, from keeping automatic tellers secure to creating driver’s license photographs.
It’s based on the theory that every person’s face is a slight spatial deviation of 128 “standard” faces. A face in a digital picture is converted into a numerical code that can be quickly compared with the faces in a database of thousands. The process takes just seconds.
The computer is programed to alert law enforcement when a match is made, and can flash a high-alert warning if it detects someone authorities have identified as particularly dangerous.
Casinos have used the technology to catch known cheats, and a system such as the one used at the Super Bowl is being tested in some U.S. airports, said Gretchen Lewis, marketing director for Viisage Technology, the Littleton, Mass., company that loaned the system to Tampa police for the Super Bowl.
The system is marketed under the name Facefinder. Viisage joined with Raytheon Co. and Graphco Technologies Inc. to construct the Super Bowl surveillance system.
“Companies are looking at the technology to look for disgruntled former employees who have been discharged and are not supposed to be on the property,” Lewis said. “You can set it up to do anything you want it to do.”
At the Super Bowl, signs advised fans that they were under video surveillance. Facefinder picked out 19 people — all petty criminals — whose faces matched a database created by Tampa police, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI. No one was detained or questioned because Facefinder’s use for the Super Bowl was an experiment, Tampa police spokesman Joe Durkin said.
“It confirmed our suspicions that these types of criminals would be coming to the Super Bowl to try and prey on the public,” Durkin said.
“I think people appreciate we kept Super Bowl XXXV as safe as we did. Had we stopped a terrorist, the system would have proved priceless.”
The system also was used in Ybor City, Tampa’s nightlife district, which drew hundreds of thousands of people during Super Bowl week. No matches were made. The police department is considering buying Facefinder for use in Ybor City, where police have been using video camera surveillance without face-recognition software for several years.
Michael Levine, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent and now radio talk show host in New York, said he agrees with law enforcement officials who say the security measures are needed in an age where tens of thousands of lives can be at risk in a single public event. And, he said, a computerized face-matching system is likely more accurate than a police officer’s own eyesight.
The problem, Levine said, is that public officials have shown no interest in limiting how police use their increasingly powerful tools.
In Tampa, the city council turned down an ACLU request for a public hearing on the use of Facefinder.
“When you have a nation that says ‘We don’t care, just go ahead and do it,’ you’re going to have that all over the country,” Levine said.
Civil liberties activists are using the Super Bowl surveillance as a sign that more attention is needed.
“If the public doesn’t object to what happened at the ‘Snooper Bowl,’ then the authorities will certainly feel emboldened to move us down the road to total surveillance,” said the ACLU’s Simon.
“I don’t minimize the threat of criminal activity when you have large crowds. Of course, there is a need for security,” he said. “There is a way to enforce the law consistent with fundamental American principles and there is a way to enforce the law consistent with totalitarian societies.”
Barry Hodge, vice president of marketing for Graphco Technologies, also noted a need for caution.
“There needs to be a really open, open positive public forum . . . as to what extent are we as individuals willing to compromise our personal privacy for public safety,” he said.
“It’s like any other tool, some of which are very, very positive and some of which could be very damaging if misused.”
On the Net:
Viisage Technology: www.viisage.com
American Civil Liberties Union: www.aclu.org
Distributed by The Associated Press (AP)