Private Eyes Are Watching You

A 17-year-old walks into a liquor store, carries a 12-pack of beer up to the counter and hands the clerk a flawless fake ID. Unbeknown to him, the clerk need not even glance at the ID before turning him down. His face gave him away.

A facial recognition system placed behind the store counter analyzes the teen's 17-year-old features and informs the clerk of his illegal age. It's just one of a litany of uses for the fast-evolving surveillance technology, a field that has security experts salivating and privacy advocates bracing for a battle.

Computers that can pick out fugitives in a crowd, video cameras that scold people for littering, eyes in the sky that detect crimes as they're being committed. While these scenarios may sound straight out of George Orwell's "1984," they are becoming reality and could be headed for your corner store sooner than you think.

Although still being researched across the globe, facial recognition technology has already taking hold, particularly in Great Britain.

Last week, Budgens, a U.K. grocery story chain, announced that it would use facial recognition technology to prevent its clerks from selling alcohol and cigarettes to underage customers. The photos of customers who were refused previously will be stored in a database, and then if the offenders come in to buy similar products again, the clerk will be alerted.

Similarly, the British government plans to roll out a facial recognition pilot program in London airports this summer. People who hold biometric U.K. and EU passports can pass through unmanned gates. At the gate, their faces will be scanned to match them to their passport records.

Though the technology has been around for years and the British are embracing it and moving forward, technology experts say facial recognition -- and the cameras needed to support it -- wouldn't fly with privacy-obsessed Americans, at least not yet.

"One of the reasons that the United Kingdom. has moved forward on this a little faster than other places is there's just a large use of cameras in support of crime reduction in general," said Aaron Bobick, chairman of the school of interactive computing at Georgia Tech, which has done research into both facial and gait recognition. "Once that starts to make video available, then the question of what you can do with that video becomes important."

Big Brother Britain

Britain has a long history of watching its citizenry. For the past 25 years, the public places in many U.K. cities have been monitored by closed circuit television cameras, or CCTV. The surveillance cameras were prompted partially by IRA bombings and terrorism fears.

According to a 2006 report by the Surveillance Studies Network, a nonprofit watchdog group, and presented to the Information Commissioner's Office, the United Kingdom has more surveillance cameras than any other in the world; at least 4.2 million of them are pointed on the country's public streets, one camera for every 14 people.

"[Facial recognition] really has picked up steam in the last 10 years," said Vijayakumar Bhagavatula, who teaches electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon. "The principle has been around for 25 years, but it started getting put into commercial systems five to 10 years ago."

Bhagavatula describes the technology simply.

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