Firm defends 'snooper bowl' technology

Privacy experts say that the Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, Fla., wasn't just a game--it was the "snooper bowl."

3 min read
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--To privacy experts, Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, Fla., wasn't just a game--it was the "snooper bowl."

The event--where law enforcement captured the images of everyone entering gates of the Raymond James Stadium and compared them with a database of criminals' faces--ushered in the largest union of face recognition and video surveillance, according to civil liberties experts. They say that although the system was designed to ensnare terrorists and other criminals, it ended up nabbing only a handful of pickpockets and ticket scalpers.

"One has to question just how useful this was," said Barry Steinhardt, the associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, speaking on a panel at the Computers Freedom and Privacy Conference 2001 here.

Privacy watchdogs are pointing to the game as the first massive example of biometrics abuse, warning that it could usher in an era where people's every move is tracked, from visits to the grocery store to auto travel.

But the chief executive of Viisage, the company behind the technology used at the Super Bowl, bravely faced the hostile crowd, defending his system as a protector of privacy instead of a violator.

"We passionately believe that face recognition improves personal privacy," Viisage CEO Thomas Colatosti said, noting that it can be used to thwart identity theft and protect bank accounts. Colatosti said his system discarded any image collected at the Super Bowl that didn't match a criminal record, and he accused critics of fear-mongering.

"Frankly, the air is filled with outrageous hyperbole," he said. "We know absolutely nothing about thousands of people who crossed our cameras."

What's more, he said, faces are not private and can be captured on film anytime someone enters a public space. Colatosti compared the current brouhaha to the debate over whether airports should install X-ray security, a practice that also came under fire from civil liberties groups. He noted that people are already tracked in public by cameras in convenience stores and by guards enforcing airport security.

"The great advantage of face recognition is that it's impartial," he said.

But those arguments didn't convince the surly crowd, who lined up at the microphones to fire questions at Colatosti. Some wondered whether the system could be easily hacked. Others pointed out that the technology probably wouldn't have prevented the Oklahoma bombing because the perpetrators wouldn't necessarily have been in the database to begin with. And one asked Colatosti whether, if money were no object, his company would construct a massive database of everyone who entered a particular public event and keep it for future use.

Colatosti said he wouldn't. "I don't think it's appropriate," he said. "I don't want my face to appear in some database. I wouldn't want a part in some sort of fishing expedition."

Meanwhile, the ACLU's Steinhardt poked holes in Colatosti's claims that the technology is impartial. He said the surveillance technology has been disproportionately used on people of color, those considered "undesirable" and--because most camera operators are men--women.

"There is a disturbing element not only of racism but also of voyeurism," he said.

Steinhardt said biometrics surveillance technology has already been used to capture images of political activists, and he wondered whether, in the future, law enforcement might use it to electronically profile people by, say, picking on minorities visiting tony neighborhoods.

"These things do happen," he said.