TAMPA - Civil-rights advocates are celebrating a decision by Tampa police to scrap a facial-recognition software system designed to search the crowds for wanted criminals in the city's entertainment district.
The software was intended to recognize the facial characteristics of felons, sexual predators and runaway children through a database of more than 24,000 mug shots. But after two years, it has yielded no positive identifications and no arrests.
Tampa police spokesman Capt. Bob Guidara said it was the ineffectiveness of the software - provided free by the manufacturer for use with existing surveillance cameras - and not privacy issues that led the department to do away with it Tuesday.
"It was of no benefit to us, and it served no real purpose," Guidara said Wednesday.
The system has been controversial since Tampa became the first city in the United States to install the software in June 2001 to scan faces in Ybor City, the city's historic nightlife district. Critics said it violated privacy rights, forcing Ybor City visitors to be in what amounted to an electronic police lineup without their consent.
Darlene Williams, chairwoman of the Tampa area chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she's glad it's gone.
"People have the right to be anonymous and not to be put in a police lineup for committing the offense of walking down a public street," Williams said.
"As a culture we have always given police the tools that are deemed appropriate to do their jobs. (But) this was handled without public input or foreknowledge, and that was wrong."
In June 2001, New Jersey-based Visionics Corp. offered the city a free trial use of the program, called FaceIt, and the software was installed on closed-circuit cameras that police use to monitor Ybor City crowds Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
A police officer in a room three blocks away monitored video images and could pick out faces in the crowd to scan and run through a criminal database to search for matches.
Initially, it could be used with only one of the system's 36 cameras at a time, but an upgrade last year allowed use on up to six of the cameras.
Critics compared it to George Orwell's novel "1984," and Texas Rep. Dick Armey, the U.S. House majority leader at the time, called for congressional hearings on the technology. Protesters donned bandanas, masks and Groucho glasses on one busy Saturday night to show their contempt.
Police are at a loss to explain why the software wasn't effective, since it seemed to work fine in controlled testing, Guidara said.
Meir Kahtan, a spokesman for the company, now known as Identix Inc. after a merger between Visionics and the security technology company Identix, declined to answer questions Wednesday about Tampa police's dropping the software.
The company's only comment came in a one-sentence statement that seems to suggest privacy issues were behind Tampa's decision.
"Identix has always stated that this technology requires safeguards, and that as a society we need to be comfortable with its use."
Guidara said the closed-circuit cameras installed in 1997 will remain in Ybor City without the face-scanning capabilities. They are effective as a deterrent and have helped police foil crimes, he said.
Face-scanning technology is still being used in other cities. The airport, jail and jail-visitation areas in Pinellas County are using it, but it has never resulted in an arrest, officials said.
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