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Cameras may watch at airport

Passengers at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport soon could have their faces compared to those of terrorists.

Pinellas County officials are talking about using the computer face-scanning program that became famous from the Super Bowl and on Ybor City streets to monitor passengers.

"I foresee a day when nobody's going to get on an airplane without looking into a camera and having their picture checked against certain databases," Sheriff Everett Rice said Wednesday afternoon. "It's very important we get a system like this at the airport as soon as possible."

Civil liberties advocates argue that the face recognition technology invades people's privacy without helping police arrest criminals. Scanning selected airport passengers is less intrusive than scanning vast Ybor City crowds, but still a bad idea, said an official with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The ACLU wants people to be safe, but we think it's possible to be both safe and free," said Mike Pheneger, secretary of the ACLU in Florida and a retired Army intelligence colonel.

Since Sept. 11, there's been renewed interest in the technology _ and less worry about privacy.

"It's a different day than it was six months ago," said Gay Lancaster, interim county administrator. "Right now, security concerns are elemental."

Even Commissioner John Morroni, a Republican who opposed the Super Bowl photos and the recent placing of video cameras on county buses, said he would support face scans at the airport. Commissioners would have to approve using the technology there.

"Normally, I would be against that, but when it comes to airport security, I would support it," Morroni said. "I think we need to do whatever it takes in order to keep our flying public safe."

Commissioners Ken Welch and Barbara Sheen Todd also endorsed the idea.

"Only the bad guys need to be worried," said Welch, a St. Petersburg Democrat. "This is a new day, and we have to use every tool we have to keep our citizens safe."

Rice, who received a $3.5-million federal grant last year for a face-scanning program, thought of doing face scans at the airport about three weeks ago. He met Tuesday with Tom Jewsbury, operations director at the county's airport.

Jewsbury said Wednesday that airport officials are intrigued, but he wasn't ready to back the plan.

"We're just looking to see what all the possibilities are," he said.

Rice said he anticipates using the grant money his department already received and working with Viisage Technologies, the company whose lobbying firm helped secure the grant. But Jewsbury said the airport also has asked its security consultant to look at the technology, and might suggest other funding or other companies.

The technology would take a digital image of a passenger's face, then use a computer program to scan the image against a database of known terrorists and federal and state fugitives. The computer measures points in a person's face, such as the distance between the eyes or cheekbones, to find a match.

None of the images would be kept, and scanning the faces of people who have chosen to buy plane tickets would be less intrusive than scanning a public place, such as Ybor City, Rice said. He also said passengers could be stopped and scanned at a security checkpoint, allowing cameras to get high-quality images. Police have found it hard to identify robbers from security camera pictures or vague composite sketches.

"It's an obvious, perfect application of the system," he said.

He also said it would be good to pioneer the system at a small airport, such as St. Petersburg/Clearwater.

But Pheneger said the system isn't proven and could result in false arrests, especially in airports striving to crack down on security. He said he doesn't know of any arrests from the Ybor City cameras, and there has been little success reported in other pilot programs.

"If you had that working on Sept. 11, there's no reason to believe it would have had any effect, because we didn't have pictures of the terrorists involved," he added.

Tampa International Airport officials haven't considered using the cameras. But Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, wouldn't rule them out.

"Everything's on the table now," he said. "If that adds a sense of security here, we would certainly look at it."