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Taking sides on a spy in the sky

Published Sep. 10, 2005

By my count, 19 citizens addressed the Tampa City Council on Thursday on the topic of using face-recognition software to scan the public streets of Ybor City. Of these, 15 spoke against the system, and four spoke in favor.

Of the four in favor, one was from the New Jersey company that is trying to sell the system. One was from another security company in Pinellas County. One was a self-described housewife who said people who lead "immoral lives" shouldn't be on the street anyway. The fourth was an energetic gentleman who alleged that some of the anti-camera speakers were "on dope."

In the end, the City Council split 3-3 on whether to ask Mayor Dick Greco to kill the experiment. The council will vote again in two weeks when the seventh member, Charlie Miranda, will cast the potentially deciding vote. Even so, the final decision is the mayor's, and an aide Thursday said the mayor is behind the system "100 percent."

The three members who voted to keep going, despite the international and nationwide controversy, were Mary Alvarez, Bob Buckhorn and Gwen Miller. They had three main arguments:

Honest people have nothing to fear. "The people who don't want it, it's because they have something to hide," Alvarez said, a little overbroadly.

Using cameras to match random faces against a computer database is not an invasion of privacy. "There is nothing private about the streets of Ybor City," Miller said.

This system is no different from what police do every day _ carry mug shots and eyeball the public to look for matches. "I believe this is nothing more than a tool," Buckhorn said.

Alvarez's line about honest citizens having "nothing to hide" is the wrong yardstick. If that were the test for a police search, then neither would there be anything wrong with daily strip-searches for everybody, Checkpoint Charlies on each street corner ("Papers, please") or mandatory, universal drug testing as a condition of collecting a Social Security check. After all, why would a person with "nothing to hide" object?

The answer is that these are un-American impositions on freedom. Even if they were somehow found legal, a freedom-loving people shouldn't want to live that way. It is easy to use the "nothing to hide" argument when you do not expect to be subjected to the thing yourself. Let's see them extend the system to, as one speaker suggested, Davis Islands, or South Tampa. My own suggestion would be surveillance cameras to watch all the drivers departing the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club, or the Tampa Yacht Club.

As for Miller's privacy argument, or other statements to the effect that people who don't like it should just stay home: A citizen does not surrender his or her rights just by stepping outside. It is true, as a matter of both law and common sense, that people have a reduced expectation of privacy in public settings. That does not make it open season. In parts of Tampa, simply by walking the streets, citizens are being randomly and unknowingly drawn into what is more or less an ongoing secret police lineup.

Buckhorn's argument that computer face-matching is only an extension of existing police work is appealing, but false. The new technology represents not just a difference of degree, but a new thing altogether _ a widespread, random, electronic search of the citizens as they go about their affairs. In a recent case involving infrared vision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an attempt by police to extend their normal reach with technology.

Critics ranging from the ACLU to the most conservative Republicans in Congress are speaking against Tampa's police state. In the end, the question is settled in the gut. Either you don't mind the government watching you with cameras and computers, or you do. Choose.

_ You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at