This commentary appeared in Washington Post on February 4, 2001.
But is the growing use of this technology cause for alarm? Is it an undesirable
invasion of individual privacy, or does it represent a positive advance in security
measures that generates benefits for society? As someone who closely follows
law and policy issues related to biometrics -- technologies that use a person's
physical characteristics or personal traits for recognition -- I believe we
must not move precipitously to condemn a technology that can serve as a useful
tool in the fight against crime and terrorism.
The technology used at the Super Bowl is known as facial recognition. Making
an identification by looking at a person's face is a standard technique: Police
regularly use mug shots to identify criminals, and most of us rarely go through
a week without having someone ask, "May I see a photo ID, please?" But biometric
facial recognition, which uses measurable facial features, such as the distances
and angles between geometric points on the face -- the ends of the mouth, the
nostrils and eye corners -- to recognize a specific individual, is a highly
automated, computerized process. And as such, it raises real fears that we are
losing the ability to control information about ourselves -- that we are being
robbed of our anonymity and our privacy.
These fears are spawned by two aspects of biometric facial recognition --
clandestine capture, which means that facial recognition systems can scan a
person's face surreptitiously, without their permission; and tracking, which
refers to the fact that the technology makes it possible to monitor an individual's
actions over a period of time.
At its most extreme, tracking could become a kind of "super surveillance"
that allows the tracker both to "follow" a person in the present and to search
databases to learn where he was months ago. For example, suppose the authorities
placed me in their "watch list" database as someone they wanted to keep an eye
out for. Surveillance cameras capturing my faceprint as I go about my many daily
tasks would digitally transmit this biometric information for instantaneous
comparison with the watch list.
As I board the Metro on my way to work, enter and exit my office building,
stop by the ATM, or attend a political rally, a match will be made, allowing
the tracker to know my movements. Similarly, the authorities can enter on their
watch list the biometric information -- the faceprint -- of all those who attended
the political rally with me and conduct searches to try to identify them from
their movements. If such a system were established, it would become possible
to compile a comprehensive profile of an individual's movements and activities.
And the information from such tracking could be combined with other personal
data, acquired by other means (like using someone's Social Security number),
to provide even more insight into a person's private life.
But while all these fears are understandable, we should not allow perceived
or potential threats to our privacy to blind us to the positive uses of biometric
technologies such as facial recognition. Perhaps Osama bin Laden's henchmen
were nowhere to be found in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, but law enforcement
officials at the Super Bowl were taking prudent steps to identify them if they
The national security community believes that facial recognition can also
help it in identifying and protecting against threats to U.S. forces and embassies
abroad. If a known terrorist can be identified before he closes in on his target,
lives can be saved. In the wake of the terrorist attack on Khobar Towers, the
Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has embarked on
a $50-million initiative known as "Human ID at a Distance," a major component
of which is facial recognition.
Facial recognition can also have beneficial uses closer to home. For example,
many parents would likely feel safer knowing their children's elementary school
had a facial recognition system to ensure that convicted child molesters were
not granted access to school grounds. Such a use, however, could point up one
potential problem of facial recognition -- that people who have "paid their
debt to society" may face heightened police scrutiny once they are identified
in a public setting.
On the whole, however, biometric facial recognition systems offer advantages
over other security measures. They are not invasive or even inconvenient. The
system used at the Super Bowl was much less intrusive than a metal detector
at a public building, or an inaugural parade checkpoint. In that sense, it helped
to protect the privacy of individuals, who otherwise might have had to endure
more individualized police attention.
The technological impartiality of facial recognition also offers significant
benefits for society. While humans are adept at recognizing facial features,
we are also susceptible to prejudices and preconceptions. The controversy surrounding
racial profiling illustrates the problems that can result. Facial recognition
systems, by contrast, do not focus on a person's skin color, hairstyle or manner
of dress, and they do not recognize racial stereotypes. While there is a danger
that the system may make an incorrect match, that danger is no more exaggerated
than it is when traditional identification methods, such as comparing mug shots,
While we must remain alert to potential abuses, we would be ill-advised to
decry the technology's use under all circumstances. Instead, we should focus
on monitoring what kind of information goes into watch list databases and what
information is gathered, stored and disseminated. Options to consider include
establishing legal measures to provide for responsible use; ensuring that citizens
understand how the technology is used; monitoring government use through citizen
oversight committees and review boards; and encouraging open, rather than surreptitious,
use of the technology. The fear of potential but inchoate threats to privacy
should not deter us from using facial recognition where it can produce positive
John Woodward is a senior policy analyst at RAND, where he works on biometric
policy issues. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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