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COLUMN

Smile And Say ‘Privacy’

Akshay Patil

During the 2001 Super Bowl, Tampa police installed security cameras all over the stadium in order to monitor attendees. Using a program called FaceIt by Visionics Corp., authorities were able to to identify potentially dangerous members of the crowd by comparing security images to a database of criminal mug shots.

Pleased with the results of this experiment, Tampa authorities implemented a similar system in July by placing 36 cameras around Ybor City, a popular entertainment district in Tampa. Despite public concern, on August 2nd the city council narrowly (4-3) decided to continue its partnership with Visionics.

Most supporters argue that face-recognition technology is an important crime-fighting tool. The ability to unobtrusively identify criminal members of the public can greatly increase the safety of a monitored area. The makers and defenders of the technology assert that it is time for critics to stop focusing on the technology’s potential abuses, and instead on its potential to do good.

I’ll refrain from going madly Orwellian. We’ve all read 1984 and are intelligent enough to construct the parallels that countless critics have covered. It’s disturbing.

The sad thing is that the system could very well be quite legal. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the principle that citizens do not have a “reasonable expectation” of privacy in public areas.

That is not to mention that the majority of the public does not seem to object to the use of face recognition technology by the police in public areas.

Within this lack of reasonable expectation, however, there is some level of privacy. Video voyeurism is definitely illegal, for example, and the police can’t search you because you were walking down a sidewalk. But where are the lines between this small amount of basic privacy and the lack of reasonable expectations? It should be a basic freedom for an individual to be able to venture out of his or her house without being videotaped and identified by the government.

Would we be opposed to implanting tracking devices in every human being, which would monitor our position on public land? There isn’t much of a difference.

One reason why police officers, but not video cameras, are an acceptable form of surveillance is that the police are visible. At the very least, people should be notified when they are under surveillance, be it by a company on private property, or by the government on public lands. Visible signs should be mandatory and accusations of evasive practices taken seriously.

The idea that a common public area may be under constant surveillance is terrifying to me. What is to stop the surveillance of all public areas if the government continues to use FaceIt? One of the fastest and easiest ways to start the age of Big Brother is in the name of safety. That’s not to say that there are evil intentions behind the current system. I’m sure that the law enforcement community of Tampa has only the safety of the community at heart behind their actions, but you don’t need me to spout clichÉs to tell you where a path of good intentions can lead.

Government is a double edged sword. It has the power to protect and defend, but it also has the power to harm and destroy. We must do our utmost best to use this sword safely and benevolently, for if we lose control, we may feel the sting of its second side.