And Now, the Good Side of Facial Profiling


Feb 4, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Washington Post on February 4, 2001.

It seemed like an Orwellian revelation: Last week, law enforcement officials at Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa secretly scanned spectators' faces with surveillance cameras and instantly compared their "faceprints" against those of suspected terrorists and known criminals in a computerized database. Alarmed civil libertarians quickly raised the specter of a Big Brother government spying on its citizens.

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 were.

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, are used.

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 benefits.

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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