Computing Applications

Electronic Frontier: Blanking on Rebellion: Where the Future Is 'Nabster'

Law enforcement has begun using face recognition software and surveillance cams, turning everyone into a de facto suspect.
  1. Introduction
  2. Pride Goeth Before the Rebellion
  3. Citizens or Suspects
  4. Be Ye Not Afraid
  5. Author
  • As the nation reels from the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, this column, written weeks before the events of Sept. 11th, becomes even more relevant. A nation is only as strong as its people are willing. You’ve heard it a million times now; I hope you hear it a million more: if we cower at these events and relent to having our civil liberties bent, we will never, as a people, be the same. And if privacy advocates were becoming militant before the attacks, in the absence of a rabid rollback of freedoms, the long march toward a pseudo-police state ("Homeland Defense Office"—need I say more?) will only serve to hasten a rebellion.

Bob Milliron, an unassuming construction worker in Tampa, Fla., is "Victim Zero," the first person to be publicly misidentified as a result of marrying face recognition software to surveillance cameras.

Milliron’s name became a household word for 15 minutes one day in early August 2000 when the news cycle feasted on the debacle that led to him being questioned by police under the assumption that he was wanted in Oklahoma on felony child neglect charges.

And now Milliron, who wanted nothing but to be left alone, is destined for martyrhood in the great Blank Rebellion now roiling at the fringes of an ever-increasing cammed society by those determined to be wiped from databases of record in a radical move to protect their private lives.

Milliron’s picture was snapped by one of the 36 surveillance cameras that unblinkingly troll the too-hip Ybor City district of Tampa, Fla. The images captured by those cameras are run in real time through the face recognition software called FaceIt. A similar setup was used to scan everyone entering this year’s Super Bowl, held in Tampa’s Raymond James stadium.

When an Oklahoma woman spied Milliron’s picture, she phoned the Tampa police claiming he was her deadbeat husband wanted on felony child neglect charges.

After hours of questioning Milliron, however, the cops struck out: Milliron wasn’t married, never had been, doesn’t have kids, never set foot in Oklahoma. They let Milliron go.

Seems the police used the picture of Milliron they captured on tape during a demonstration for reporters. That picture ran in one of the local papers captioned: "This man was not identified as wanted."

U.S. News&World Report bought the picture and it was in that magazine that an Oklahoma woman thought she recognized Milliron, prompting her to call the police.

Web sites now populate cyberspace hawking low-tech devices aimed at foiling cameras trying to take pictures of the license plates of all speeders and red-light runners.

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Pride Goeth Before the Rebellion

"It is time to stop irresponsible grandstanding and fear mongering," about surveillance cameras and face recognition technology, intoned Richard Chace, executive director of the Security Industry Association during a seminar in Washington.

Biometric technologies—which include face scanning, retinal, fingerprint and handprint scanning—are "designed to watch out for you … not watch you," Chace said.

Someone should tell that to Milliron.

"It made me feel like a criminal," he said in the aftermath of being questioned.

Militant gun owners proclaim on bumper stickers: "You can take my gun from me when you can pry it from my cold dead fingers."

Militant privacy advocates have no such corollary; their privacy is taken at will by law enforcement officials, taken at random by corporate America, taken for granted by a public increasingly desensitized to the continued erosion of privacy rights.

The backlash of a surveilled society is happening; the Blank Rebellion is beginning. People are "disappearing" in bits and pieces and you don’t even notice.

For example, when Tampa married the face recognition software to its network of video cameras in July, protesters took the streets of Ybor City in masks and made obscene gestures at the cameras. And Web sites now populate cyberspace hawking low-tech devices aimed at foiling cameras trying to take pictures of the license plates of all speeders and red-light runners.

The Blank Rebellion started as a jog along a footpath just off the intellectual mainstream. It took seed in the vast diversionary wasteland called Prime Time TV in the form of a disembodied antihero called "Max Headroom." It’s now desperately trying to gain a grassroots foothold among another disembodied bunch: citizens of cyberspace.

The rebellion grows in the UberNet of password-protected chat rooms. Schematics of closed circuit TV surveillance systems are passed around with instruction on how to tap into them. As it turns out, it’s little more complicated than setting up an illicit cable-TV tap.

There is, mostly hyperbolic, talk of disappearing from the "info grid." Christians would call such disappearance the Rapture; academics might call it justice. Militants call it payback.

The Blanks will not go quietly into the night, not if the advance talk I’ve seen on the Net is any indication. They plan to launch a counteroffensive that is anything but defensive in nature.

There is talk of accessing the servers that hold the pictures of wanted felons used by the FaceIt technology to identify potential criminals in a crowd. Having accessed those servers, there is talk of corrupting the data or uploading the faces of public officials themselves.

But you can rest easy, I’m sure … it’s just talk.

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Citizens or Suspects

The technology used in Tampa isn’t staying in Tampa, didn’t originate in Tampa and may even have already been used on you without your knowledge.

"Big deal," you say. It is. Such technologies turn everyone into de facto suspects. "Face frisking," is the term that Richard Smith of the Privacy Foundation uses to describe the process. "I’ve never participated in a police lineup, but my next trip to Tampa, Fla. will change all that," he says.

So might a trip to Virginia Beach, Va., where I vacationed this year, only to discover while reading the local paper the city was contemplating installing a system like Tampa’s. The system would constantly monitor the boardwalk of this sleepy coastal community because it’s apparently a well-known hangout for drug traffickers, serial killers, and rogue columnists.

Oh … and the Virginia Beach system also will look for runaways, the "crime" against humanity that has reached epidemic levels.

That a surveillance system would be pushed into action to scan beach-going crowds for runaways is at the core of what’s wrong with its wholesale implementation.

First, it’s dubious that running away is a crime at all. Second, if a runaway is identified and caught, are the local police capable of, trained in, and willing to investigate the complex social and family issues underlying the reason a kid has decided to jettison him- or herself from the family situation?

Or will a runaway just be put in handcuffs and shipped back to a potentially dangerous or abusive home?

Of course the situation isn’t that black-and-white, but that’s exactly my point.

Currently, databases like the one used in Ybor City can hold only the pictures of 30,000 suspects. However, Tampa typically has about 100,000 outstanding felony warrants on file at any one time. This begs the question: who decides what names and faces go into the database?

One might think heinous criminals would go first and that there would be some kind of crime hierarchy determining who gets added. Apparently in Tampa, runaways rate right up there with those suspected of violent crimes because runaways have made the cut in Tampa.

I can imagine Tampa’s local police force, strapped for cash anyway and in the white-hot spotlight of controversy for having spent precious funds on the face scanning system, might want to kick up the "hits" on its database. To do so it would start including pictures of those with outstanding traffic tickets instead of outstanding warrants for rape or armed robbery on the belief that chronic double-parkers might be easier to nab, thus making the bottom-line stats look good during the city council’s next budget meeting.

Or perhaps the cops will figure out how to hook their cameras and databases up to a peer-to-peer network with other law enforcement agencies across the country. They’ll probably call it Nabster and gloat about how they can nail all the deadbeat dads … like me. Or at least, that’s what the San Diego, California district attorney thought.

Truth is, as a divorced father of three kids, I did, at one time, owe about $11,000 in unpaid alimony and child support. It’s not that I wouldn’t pay; I couldn’t pay.

I eventually made good on all that debt and continue to meet the ongoing current financial obligations each month. But for years and years I fought with San Diego’s district attorney because my credit rating continued to be in shambles, the result of a debt they said I still owed but had long ago paid.

Remember Rob Milliron, Victim Zero? He was a misidentified deadbeat dad. There’s no reason to believe face scanning systems won’t eventually start to be used to locate deadbeat dads, and then all hell will break loose because I know what rotten shape those databases are in.

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Be Ye Not Afraid

Supporters of the technology, those with huge potential financial stakes in its success, tell us to be not afraid, that such technologies are good for society, and besides, we’re already protected from abuse.

"The judicial system in the U.S. limits the powers of police and their application of technology," says Thomas Seamon, chair of the private sector liaison committee for the Security Industry Association.

Next Seamon will try and tell us that Watergate won’t ever happen again, that illegal wiretaps are never done, and that IRS employees never misuse the tax return databases they have access to everyday because, after all, that would be against the law.

If I weren’t already twitchy enough over this technology, that its supporters cough up no better assurances than "trust us; trust the police," I am now.

And when lawmakers’ start passing laws making the wearing of masks in public places a criminal offense, you’ll know the end is very, very near. Trust me on that.

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