T A M P A, Fla., Feb. 13, 2001 -- Super Bowl, or Snooper Bowl?
As 100,000 fans stepped through the turnstiles at Super BowlXXXV, a camera snapped their image and matched it against acomputerized police lineup of known criminals, from pickpockets tointernational terrorists.
It's not a new kind of surveillance. But its use at the SuperBowl — dubbed "Snooper Bowl" by critics — has highlighted adebate about the balance between individual privacy and publicsafety.
Law enforcement officials say what was done at the Super Bowl isno more intrusive than routine video surveillance that most peopleencounter each day as they're filmed in stores, banks, officebuildings or apartment buildings.
But to critics, the addition of the face-recognition system canessentially put everyone in a police lineup.
"I think it presents a whole different picture of America,"said Howard Simon, executive director of the American CivilLiberties Union in Florida.
Biometrics Aid Law Enforcement
The technology, called biometrics, was created at theMassachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1990s and has beenadapted for dozens of uses, from keeping automatic tellers secureto creating driver's license photographs.
It's based on the theory that every person's face is a slightspatial deviation of 128 "standard" faces. A face in a digitalpicture is converted into a numerical code that can be quicklycompared with the faces in a database of thousands. The processtakes just seconds.
The computer is programmed to alert law enforcement when a matchis made, and can flash a high-alert warning if it detects someoneauthorities have identified as particularly dangerous.
Casinos have used the technology to catch known cheats, and asystem such as the one used at the Super Bowl is being tested insome U.S. airports, said Gretchen Lewis, marketing director forViisage Technology, the Littleton, Mass., company that loaned thesystem to Tampa police for the Super Bowl.
The system is marketed under the name Facefinder. Viisage joinedwith Raytheon Co. and Graphco Technologies Inc. to construct theSuper Bowl surveillance system.
"Companies are looking at the technology to look fordisgruntled former employees who have been discharged and are notsupposed to be on the property," Lewis said. "You can set it upto do anything you want it to do."
19 ‘Petty Criminals’ Detected
At the Super Bowl, signs advised fans that they were under videosurveillance. Facefinder picked out 19 people — all petty criminals— whose faces matched a database created by Tampa police, theFlorida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI. No one wasdetained or questioned because Facefinder's use for the Super Bowlwas an experiment, Tampa police spokesman Joe Durkin said.
"It confirmed our suspicions that these types of criminalswould 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 aswe did. Had we stopped a terrorist, the system would have provedpriceless."
The system also was used in Ybor City, Tampa's nightlifedistrict, which drew hundreds of thousands of people during SuperBowl week. No matches were made. The police department isconsidering buying Facefinder for use in Ybor City, where policehave been using video camera surveillance without face-recognitionsoftware for several years.
No Limits In Sight
Michael Levine, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agentand now radio talk show host in New York, said he agrees with lawenforcement officials who say the security measures are needed inan age where tens of thousands of lives can be at risk in a singlepublic event. And, he said, a computerized face-matching system islikely more accurate than a police officer's own eyesight.
The problem, Levine said, is that public officials have shown nointerest in limiting how police use their increasingly powerfultools.
In Tampa, the city council turned down an ACLU request for apublic hearing on the use of Facefinder.
"When you have a nation that says 'We don't care, just go aheadand do it,' you're going to have that all over the country,"Levine said.
Civil liberties activists are using the Super Bowl surveillanceas a sign that more attention is needed.
"If the public doesn't object to what happened at the 'SnooperBowl,' then the authorities will certainly feel emboldened to moveus down the road to total surveillance," said the ACLU's Simon.
"I don't minimize the threat of criminal activity when you havelarge crowds. Of course, there is a need for security," he said."There is a way to enforce the law consistent with fundamentalAmerican principles and there is a way to enforce the lawconsistent with totalitarian societies."
Barry Hodge, vice president of marketing for GraphcoTechnologies, 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 compromiseour personal privacy for public safety," he said.
"It's like any other tool, some of which are very, verypositive and some of which could be very damaging if misused."