Big Brother Comes of Age

If you’re visiting Tampa’s trendy Ybor City, chances are your face is being matched up against those of thousands of known criminals.

The police department in this central Florida tourist district is testing a new surveillance system of video cameras and computers. At the heart of the system is a $30,000 software program called Face-It, developed by Visionics Corp. and Advanced Biometric Imaging LLC.

Surveillance cameras in public places — parks, courtyards, alongside roadways — are quickly becoming the preferred security tools of law enforcement agencies and private companies. And as surveillance technology becomes more sophisticated and cheaper to implement, the debate of public safety vs. personal privacy is once again rearing its head.

The software can capture the faces of up to four people from the 36 cameras installed throughout the heavily trafficked shopping and nightclub district.

Then, using a unique set of algorithms, the program compares the captured images against a database of photos by examining up to 80 points of facial references centered on eyes and noses.

If the program doesn’t find a match among the database of 30,000 photos maintained by the Tampa Police Department, the captured images are discarded. But if a match is found, observers radio a local beat cop to stop and verify the identity of the person on the street.

According to Detective D.W. Bill Todd Jr., Tampa police are just testing the system to determine if facial recognition could be a valuable law enforcement tool. And Todd notes that Ybor City was chosen as the test site not because of any high crime rate or special concern for public safety, but because a recent $45 million revitalization project left the area ready for the network of cameras and computer cables.

Privacy Pundits Piqued

In many cities, the easy and rapid proliferation of such public surveillance systems has privacy advocates worried.

Wagne Madsen, a senior fellow at Washington.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, remembers when a similar surveillance and facial recognition system was used in the last Super Bowl, held in Tampa last January. “Everyone was having their pictures taken,” says Madsen, “based on no probable cause.”

There were no reports of criminals seized from among the tens of thousands of fans who attended.

Eyes of the Big Apple

According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, New York City literally has thousands of cameras.

“A few years ago, our surveillance project did a walking tour and came up with somewhere under 3,000,” says Donna Lieberman, acting executive director. “That was just Manhattan and that was a few years ago. We expect [now] that there are a lot more.”

High traffic areas of New York City, for example, are monitored not only by the police, but by various government and private agencies as well. The New York Department of Transportation and other commercial entities post traffic cameras in public places to monitor vehicle and pedestrian traffic. And, most of these cameras then feed their signals to public Web sites, accessible by anyone with Internet access.

Cameras have struck a raw nerve with some politicians, too. House Majority Leader Dick Armey last month asked the secretary of the interior to review the use of such traffic cameras in national parks.

Quiet About Safety

But law enforcement maintains that public surveillance cameras keep the public safe. The New York Police Department says they work well, but it's reluctant to give details, for fear of jeopardizing their effectiveness.

“This isn’t the type of thing, we’re going to want to talk about,” says police spokesman Detective Walter Burnes.

In Baltimore, Tom Yager, a former police officer now working with a coalition of police, business and community members to set up surveillance systems as a crime deterrent, says cameras “make [the public] feel comfortable.”

Still, not every municipality is quite so gung-ho.

In Private Hands

In Oakland, Calif., only businesses and apartment owners — and not police — have direct control of surveillance cameras. Police only view footage after a crime has been committed and reported.

Even there, though, residents could soon unwittingly have their images captured.

City Council aide Frank Rose says Oakland has had so much success with cameras that a surveillance program for illegal dumping is in the works.

ABCNEWS’ Paul Eng and Andrew Colton contributed to this report.