WASHINGTON —The federal government is making progress on developing a surveillance system that would pair computers with videocameras to scan crowds and automatically identify people by their faces, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with researchers working on the project.
The Department of Homeland Security recently tested a crowd-scanning project called the Biometric Optical Surveillance System — or BOSS — after two years of government-financed development. Although the system is not ready for use, researchers say they are making significant advances on it. That alarms privacy advocates, who say that now is the time for the government to establish oversight rules and limits on how it will someday be used.
There have been stabs for over a decade at building a system that would help match faces in a crowd with names on a watch list — whether in searching for terrorism suspects at high-profile events like a presidential inaugural parade or identifying card cheats in crowded casinos.
The release of the documents about the government's efforts comes amid a surge of interest in surveillance matters inspired by the leaks by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor. Interest in video surveillance has also been fueled by the attack on the Boston Marathon, where the bombers were identified by officials looking through camera footage.
In a sign of how the use of such technologies can be developed for one use but then expanded to another, the BOSS research began as an effort to help the military detect potential suicide bombers and other terrorists overseas at "outdoor polling places in Afghanistan and Iraq," among other sites, the documents show. But in 2010, the effort was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security to be developed for use instead by the police in the United States.
After a recent test of the system, the department recommended against deploying it until more improvements could be made.
"I would say we're at least five years off, but it all depends on what kind of goals they have in mind" for such a system, said Anil Jain, a specialist in computer vision and biometrics engineering at Michigan State University who was not involved in the BOSS project.
Ginger McCall, a privacy advocate who obtained the documents under the Freedom of Information Act and provided them to the New York Times, said the time was now — while such technology is still maturing and not yet deployed — to build in rules for how it may be used.
"This technology is always billed as antiterrorism, but then it drifts into other applications," McCall said.