Poor Performance of Tampa's Face-Recognition Technology

January 3, 2002 12:00 am

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Drawing a Blank: Tampa Police Records Reveal Poor
Performance of Face-Recognition TechnologyTampa Officials Have Suspended Use of the System, ACLU Reports FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, January 3, 2002
NEW YORK–Facial recognition technology on the streets of Tampa, Florida is an overhyped failure that has been seemingly abandoned by police officials, according to a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union.

System logs obtained by the ACLU through Florida’s open-records law show that the system never identified even a single individual contained in the department’s database of photographs. And in response to the ACLU’s queries about the small number of system logs, the department has acknowledged that the software — originally deployed last June, 2001 — has not been actively used since August.

“”Tampa’s off-again, on-again use of face-recognition software reminds us that public officials should not slavishly embrace whatever latest fad in surveillance technology comes along,”” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida, which made the records request last August.

The logs obtained by the ACLU also indicate that the system made many false matches between people photographed by police video cameras as they walked down Seventh Avenue in Tampa’s Ybor City district and photographs in the department’s database of criminals, sex offenders, and runaways. The system made what were to human observers obvious errors, such as matching male and female subjects and subjects with significant differences in age or weight.

“”Face recognition is all hype and no action,”” said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU and an author of the report. “”Potentially powerful surveillance systems like face recognition need to be examined closely before they are deployed, and the first question to ask is whether the system will actually improve our safety. The experience of the Tampa Police Department confirms that this technology doesn’t deliver.””

According to the ACLU, Tampa police officials have claimed that their discontinuation of the system was due to disruptions caused by police redistricting and that they planned to resume operation at some point in the future.

The ACLU expressed skepticism that redistricting was what really led Tampa to abandon the face recognition system. As the report notes, “”it is reasonable to assume that the professionals in the Tampa Police Department would not have let the system sit unused for so long because of a mere redistricting process had they previously found facial recognition to be a valuable tool in the effort to combat crime.””

Several government agencies have already abandoned facial-recognition systems after finding they did not work as advertised, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which experimented with using the technology to identify people in cars at the Mexico-U.S. border.

And Steinhardt noted that more controlled studies of face recognition software — by the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, by the Defense Department, and by independent security expert Richard Smith — have found levels of ineffectiveness similar to those in Tampa.

Despite these findings, facial recognition systems are being increasingly discussed and deployed, largely as a means for combating terrorism. They are being set up in several airports around the United States, including Logan Airport in Boston, T.F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I., Fresno Airport in California and Palm Beach International Airport in Florida.

The ACLU has urged officials at these airports to discontinue use of the systems, noting that facial recognition schemes are of little use without a photographic database of known terrorists. At Fresno airport, officials have addressed this problem by using photos of criminals from the television program “”America’s Most Wanted.””

“”It makes little sense to employ an intrusive system that will have little chance of success,”” Steinhardt said. “”The technology will not only divert resources from more effective efforts, but it will also create a false sense of security that will cause us to let our guard down.””

The ACLU’s report is available online in .pdf format at http://archive.aclu.org/issues/privacy/drawing_blank.pdf.

Copies of the ACLU’s letters to airport officials are included in this special report.

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