Proliferation of Surveillance Devices Threatens Privacy

July 11, 2001 12:00 am

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Proliferation of Surveillance Devices Threatens PrivacyJoint Statement of House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-TX,
And The American Civil Liberties Union

Wednesday, July 11, 2001 WASHINGTON — Over the past several days, a troubling expansion in the way technology is being used in the surveillance of ordinary Americans has come to light. In response, we are today joining together to call on all state and local governments to stop using these dangerous technologies now before privacy in America is so diminished that it becomes nothing more than a fond memory.

Majority Leader Armey will ask the General Accounting Office to study the extent to which the federal government is funding facial-recognition technologies. In addition, he will ask the relevant House Committees to hold hearings on law enforcement use of surveillance technology. The ACLU supports these requests.

Tampa, Florida drew attention to the importance of these issues with its highly publicized use of facial recognition technology during this year’s “snooperbowl.” The city recently took the next step by using the software to scan individuals in an entertainment district. Virginia Beach announced this week that it will seek state funding to install similar facial-recognition cameras in its oceanfront areas.

In Colorado, the Department of Motor Vehicles is moving ahead with a plan approved by the Legislature to create a database containing computerized three-dimensional facial maps of all those applying for driver’s licenses.

There is an alarming potential for misuse of all of these systems. Used in conjunction with facial-recognition software, for example, the Colorado database could allow the public movements of every citizen in the state to be identified, tracked, recorded and stored.

These surveillance systems are ineffective and will lead the police to stop people who have done nothing wrong. According to the Los Angeles Times, a recent study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that digital comparisons of posed photos of the same person taken 18 months apart triggered false rejection by computers 43 percent of the time. Police relying on this technology will be led too often to stop and question the innocent instead of the suspect.

These cameras do not generate suspicion adequate to trigger a law enforcement stop. Instead, they may lead to high-tech “racial profiling” should surveillance cameras be placed in areas populated primarily by members of ethnic and racial minority groups.

We are extremely troubled by this unprecedented expansion in high-tech surveillance in the United States. We believe that technology should not be used to create a “virtual line up” of Americans who are not suspected of having done anything wrong.

The threats to privacy in America are all too real. We believe the privacy risk outweighs any benefits that these devices may offer. It’s time to take notice of what has happened to privacy in America today.

The ACLU of Florida has asked Tampa city officials for additional information about what its facial recognition program. For more information, see:

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