Aug 1, 2001 12:00 PM

I heard a 15-second brief on the news yesterday. Nothing fancy, no pictures, no "on-scene reporters" ! just a brief. It seems that down in Tampa, Fla., a group of people got together to protest the installation of cameras on the city streets. The Tampa police department is installing a facial recognition computer program to help officers find criminals as they walk the streets.

I may be an old retired hippie with too much time on his hands, but I am still passionate about certain things. One of them is freedom. Another is privacy.

In the 15 seconds of news I had just heard, both things were ripped from my control. I watched news the rest of the day, but I did not hear another word about the new system or the protest. Why not?

This news should have been the headline of every newspaper this morning, in the middle of every discussion on morning television. It should have been followed up with interviews.

There are several reasons we should wake up and smell the coffee here.

We, as an industry of security, still do not have federal, state, or industry legislation on standards and/or ethics. However, over the past several years, various groups have rallied around their state and local representatives and mandated different licensing programs for the security industry. The state you live in determines just how many hoops you need to jump through to do business.

I think that these programs are useful and needed, because they keep dishonest people out of our industry and help the average Joe and Jane to get what they pay for. However, individuals, groups and/or associations within the security industry instigated a majority of these programs. Therefore, the contents and direction of these laws and licenses tend to favor security. When security issues hit the front page and the evening news, there can be a huge public outcry ! and a government outcry on behalf of the public ! for controls and laws pertaining to what can be done in the security industry. We could all end up in a position in which the security industry is unable to do business because of all the red tape.

Don't think it could happen? Look at the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was enacted in response to public outcry and is still being challenged in courtrooms. The only way the ADA can be enforced is to let individuals sue various persons, contractors and organizations, using the ADA as a guide.

Do you want to be the government's next guinea pig, left to defend yourself against a lawsuit based on a new, massive, unsupportable piece of legislature called the American Security Act (ASA)? It could happen.

For the past 10 years, we have been using more and more CCTV to support security and law enforcement. It has been a boom market, and many people have made money. It is also proven that CCTV cameras, in the right position or perspective, can save lives, prove innocence or guilt, save money, and improve courtroom efficiency. But recently, we as an industry seem to be following a pattern: Someone comes up with a new idea about using a camera and, unless there is a huge offense of some sort, lots of people use the idea to make money.

With facial recognition computer programs on the streets, however, everyone seems to lose, although I have remained on a fine-lined, razor-bladed fence for several years.

Today, I found my side, but it may be too late. Every time we sell, install or produce another camera that ends up on public streets, we take a chance of losing. Granted, there are a huge number of applications out there begging for CCTV technology, and I support them ! things like highway supervision and traffic control, inner-city drug enforcement and police car recording devices. I support these systems because they save lives and produce positive community results. But what lives are we saving by putting cameras on street corners supported with facial recognition capabilities? For the past few years, I have supported City Center Camera Systems (CCCS) ! the camera on the corner. I still do because, if properly installed and monitored, they help limit crime. However, what good is accomplished by enabling these camera systems to identify persons automatically? Law enforcement may only be feeding the computer images of the criminals ! for now. But how many criminals does it take to so easily give up our privacy for the sake of catching a couple more?

In the United States, we have a group dedicated to protecting our individual rights as laid out by the Constitution ! the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). I have fought the ACLU on behalf of City Center Cameras in the past, because these City Center Camera Systems save lives and cut crime. But the cost, according to the ACLU, is some of our privacy.

Is there privacy on city streets? More importantly, do we have the right to privacy on city streets? It has been argued that we do, but, at the same time, the counter argument asserts there is no way to maintain absolute privacy on public streets ! so cameras are taking nothing away.

What kind of privacy can you expect on a street corner? Anyone can hear you, anyone can see you, and anyone could be watching you. However, privacy is possible in theory. When I want privacy on a public street, I stand away from the crowd. When I want privacy, I walk in a park, quietly enjoying the day.

Cameras on the streets have invaded this privacy ! to a degree. However, the winning argument for cameras on the streets is simple: If you have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to worry about.

My youngest son, 16, stands to lose his driver's license because he ran a red light the other day ! or should I say even though he didn't run a red light. The camera mounted on the traffic light caught him in the act. No, make that the red light camera caught my son's car in the act. My son was actually out of the state with me.

However, he will lose his right to drive unless he can prove that he was out of town at the time of the ticket. His only witnesses are family members ! and the youth who borrowed his car and actually ran the red light. To prove his innocence, my son must turn in his friend. He didn't do anything wrong, but he has something to worry about.

In the case of adding facial recognition to street cameras, I hope the ACLU protests. I will join them.

Is this a place where we stand back and allow our government to do whatever it takes to keep us safe? You may think I am blowing this one incident out of proportion. After all, It's only happening in one city in one state and only on a few cameras on a few street corners. But department stores are experimenting with the same facial recognition systems.

Your face, actions and movements are no longer just a recorded image for security purposes. You are now being used as a demographic model, without your knowledge, consent or approval. Once your face is recorded and logged, the system can pick you up the next time you come into a store and track your actions to determine what products you think are hot and which ones are not. The system can tell where you will be most likely to go and what you will look at and/or buy next time. Don't pick up the Playboy ! you're being watched to see what page you like the best!

I predict within five years (maybe sooner), if left unchecked or unchallenged, there will be several hundred small, city systems like the one in place in Florida. I further predict that these systems will be made interactive, via the Internet. We may ultimately share our scanning and detection techniques and our visual facial database with other countries using the same technology.

We are on the verge of being in the middle of a worldwide visual data bank that not only stores an image of your face, but also can scan the world to find you at any time, and in any place. It is already beginning to happen, and it is time to do what we can to stop it or slow it down.

I've shown you two sides to a simple argument. Some of you will think that I am trying to put down facial recognition systems ! I am not. Facial recognition systems are great tools and have many applications. They work well and should be used accordingly. I am merely trying to get something stopped before it gets out of hand.

What can you do? You can find out your state representative's name. You can write a letter demanding facial recognition systems be deemed illegal in public systems. You can find and contact your local ACLU chapter and alert them to the problem and ask what you can do, as a private individual, to help. You can tell all your friends about what is going on and get more public demonstrations against this technology being used in public circles.

Charlie R. Pierce, president of LRC Electronics, Davenport, Iowa, is a leading authority on CCTV and a regular contributor to Access Control & Security Systems Integration.

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