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Orwellian eyes

In almost every B-grade science fiction movie, there's a point in the plot where the mad scientist develops something that could be used to further the cause of good or evil. He invariably chooses evil. But as the debate over the use of face-recognition software in Ybor City reminds us, the tougher problem arises when an invasive new technology is intended to be used for good.

The proliferation and availability of high-tech crime-fighting tools have encouraged law enforcement to experiment with machines that claim to do what a legion of police couldn't. Devices being tested by police agencies here and around the country claim to flush fugitives out of a crowd and automatically analyze drivers' license photographs for wanted criminals. But before we rush to embrace the newest crook-grabbing toy, it is incumbent on our leaders to have a serious conversation on the trade-offs. Privacy is not just some word that appears on a hotel doorknob warning off the maid. Privacy is a fundamental individual right. We fought a revolution to keep the state from arbitrarily searching our person and property, and every new technology should be measured against this interest.

The software being tried out in Ybor City ostensibly maps the faces of passersby, analyzing 80 distinct points on each and comparing that to a database of mug shots of fugitives.

That means people enjoying an evening out are not only being observed through a series of 36 cameras, they are also part of a virtual lineup. Everyone's a suspect until the computer says you're clear. And if you think just staying out of Ybor will keep you from this kind of intrusion, think again. Thanks to a $3.5-million grant arranged by congressman C.W. Bill Young, the Largo Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office will soon be using face-matching software on the entire database of state drivers' license photos. The photos will constitute one giant mug book.

Law enforcement officials say there is nothing unconstitutional about these technologies. When we're strolling on a street in Ybor City, no one has an expectation of privacy. And putting visages through this database is really no different from police standing on street corners with mug shots, making comparisons as people walk by.

But this argument is as disingenuous as saying that looking through a window from the sidewalk is the same as looking in with a high-powered telephoto lense or night goggles. Technology makes a substantial difference in the degree of intrusion.

While police taking random video of people on the street as a way of keeping the peace may not constitute a search for constitutional purposes, face mapping does. Taking exact measurements of one's facial features is not something a police officer could eyeball. The technology provides police with a great deal of personal information they couldn't otherwise obtain, and it's on people who are not suspected of criminal wrongdoing.

In Colorado, the Department of Motor Vehicles is planning to take this Orwellian technology even further by creating a database of three-dimensional facial maps of every person applying for a driver's license. A joint statement by the American Civil Liberties Union and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, warns: "Used in conjunction with facial-recognition software, the Colorado database could allow the public movements of every citizen in the state to be identified, tracked, recorded and stored."

Armey, one of the most conservative members of Congress, has decided to make these privacy incursions a personal crusade. He is planning to ask the General Accounting Office to look into the ways government is funding these face-recognition software programs and he has asked appropriate House committees to investigate the use of these programs by law enforcement.

As new technologies give police ever greater ability to track the movements of law-abiding citizens in the name of public safety, we will have to decide whether the marginal safety benefit is worth the cost. Face-recognition technology may be intended as a force for good, but its dark side is worthy of a mad scientist.