Overmatched by Technology

June 22, 2001 | Washington Post |

Last week, a small group of activists staged a protest in Tampa against a new video surveillance system: Cameras using face-recognition technology watch over a downtown nightlife district and match the faces picked up with a database of mug shots. City officials claim the system makes Tampa safer. The protesters argued that the city has no right to record or analyze such so-called biometric data without the subjects' permission.

Who's right in this debate? That's a good question, and one that currently has no clear-cut answer. A century ago, when U.S. law enforcement agencies first introduced fingerprinting, few voices of dissent challenged the idea of trusting government with foolproof records for identifying Americans. But today's technologies for analyzing human traits are considerably more ominous. The image of a detective dusting for fingerprints seems quaintly innocent in an era when sophisticated computer databases contain reams of information about our physical selves. What's more, such databases are being assembled not just by government agencies but also by private businesses. And this is happening amid scant democratic deliberation over how to balance the conflicting interests of society.

Recent years have seen rapid advances in technologies that measure human characteristics such as facial shape, retinas, hand geometry, voice signature and, of course, our DNA. Such advances are occurring at the same time that faster computer chips and expanding bandwidth allow digitized data to be more quickly analyzed and more widely shared. Even fingerprinting is being revolutionized.

Law enforcement officials see these advances as a boon, arguing that the benefits to society outweigh the potential dangers -- arguments not easily dismissed. For example, not only has DNA testing allowed numerous wrongly convicted people to go free, but new DNA databases could result in much higher arrest and conviction rates, which could in turn deter would-be criminals. If DNA records were on file for every American, nearly all rapists could be reliably identified, arrested and incarcerated. On the other hand, these same records could be used to identify genes associated with certain physical and mental health conditions that the sufferers might well want to keep private.

Do most of us want to live in a society where the police can access our genetic code? Probably not, especially not if scientific breakthroughs allow these records to show how intelligent we are, or whether we're prone to alcoholism or violence. Do most of us like living in a society where rapists go unpunished? Definitely not.

Modern face-recognition technology conjures images of George Orwell's dystopian novel "1984," in which everyone is watched constantly by cameras. That future is closer than most Americans may think. By processing the data stream of images from the video surveillance networks with face-recognition technology, those entities in control of major networks -- say, 7-Eleven Inc., or public transit agencies -- will have access to vast amounts of information about the whereabouts of millions of Americans.

Do Americans like the idea of wanted criminals being apprehended more easily? Yes. Do most Americans want this security enough to allow public and private entities to track everyone's movements? That's more equivocal. Some of us probably do, while others do not.

The lack of democratic deliberation about biometrics and DNA stockpiling is as unsettling as the technologies themselves. Despite occasional congressional hearings and public protests, federal and state legislative attention is wanting. Law enforcement agencies operate in a poorly regulated environment, building DNA databases or installing video surveillance systems without public notification, consultation or debate. Few laws govern how private businesses collect, use and transfer physical information about employees or customers. Biometric technology is a fast-growing industry, and private corporations are pushing their products aggressively. A new trade group, the International Biometrics Industry Association, has set up shop in Washington to lobby on behalf of its members in federal and state policymaking arenas. This summer, for example, the IBIA sought to stop recent legislation in California imposing restrictions on face-recognition technology.

It is one of the disquieting truths of modern life that technology advances far more quickly than public policy. The advantage is with industry because high-tech innovation moves fast, driven by impatient scientists and entrepreneurs, while public policy advances with painful slowness through the creaky machinery of legislation.

Earlier in this century there was much debate over whether democracy could survive totalitarianism and communism. It did. These days one wonders whether democracy can keep up with technology. It can, especially if political leaders have the courage to regulate powerful market forces, and rein in overzealous law enforcement officials. Technologies that take the full measure of human beings offer a good place to begin showing this courage. Here's a look at four of the technologies that allow both private businesses and law enforcement agencies to capture and stockpile vast new amounts of information about our physical beings and our movements.

Out of This Whorl: Fingerprinting

In an age of science fiction-like biometric technologies, the oldest such tool -- fingerprinting -- is not only more widely used than ever before but also is causing unprecedented controversy.

In 1998, President Clinton signed the National Child Protection Act, which legalized using fingerprint-based criminal history checks for any organization working with children, the elderly or people with disabilities. This national law supplements a growing number of state laws that mandate fingerprinting for a wide variety of purposes. Six states now require fingerprinting to get a driver's license. Maine passed a law in 1997 mandating the fingerprinting of all school employees. Virginia passed legislation in 2000 that allows businesses and other organizations that serve children, the elderly and the disabled to use the resources of the Virginia State Police to do fingerprint investigations of employees or potential volunteers. New York City requires the fingerprinting of welfare recipients.

New technology makes fingerprints easier to collect, as well as to analyze and share widely. Forget the old ink pads. Today, electronic fingerprints can be taken with a scanning machine. Also, mathematical algorithms have allowed the characteristics of fingerprints to be broken down into tiny and unique data files, which can be rapidly processed by computers looking for matches.

Civil libertarians and others have vigorously fought the growing use of fingerprinting in normal government and business transactions. "Bit by bit what's happening is we're turning our society into a police state," said Sally Sutton, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, in fighting the Maine school employee law. "Freedom means we should be free from government scrutiny until convicted." Some parents in Maine, however, have argued that freedom comes from knowing that their children are not being taught by convicted child molesters who lied during their background checks.

Putting the 'I' in Iris: Biometric Identity Authentication

The time: two years from now. The place: your ATM.

You stand in front of the machine. You do not insert a cash card, you do not enter a PIN. Still, the ATM knows you and allows you to withdraw money. How is this possible? "Biometric identity authentication," using a scan of your eye's retina or iris.

New technologies for measuring and recording human traits are gaining a major following among a diverse array of businesses. In addition to eye scans and face recognition, several technologies are on the market, including those that analyze the dimensions of your hand and the timbre of your voice. Many employers are already using hand geometry devices to replace the old punch-in card, thus making it impossible for workers to punch in pals playing hooky. Corporations with high-security needs use biometric ID systems to regulate access to certain areas, with the logic that security cards can fall into the wrong hands while an individual's retina cannot (except in a James Bond movie). That future ATM could mean nobody would ever be able misuse your cash card again.

Many Americans may not care if their retinal characteristics or voice signature are stored in a data bank that can be sold to the highest bidder. Others will, but have little say in the matter under current law. And that should be of concern to us all. In the words of House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, who recently called for hearings on face-recognition technology, "Do we really want a society where one cannot walk down the street without Big Brother tracking our every move?"

Whose Genes Are Those, Anyway?: DNA Databases

Many law enforcement officials have what they see as a utopian vision: Every time they find a shred of genetic evidence associated with a crime, they can enter that evidence into a centralized computer system and soon have the name of a sure-fire suspect -- along with critical evidence needed to send the perpetrator to prison. That vision remains out of reach, for the simple reason that civil libertarians and others consider it a Brave New World nightmare scenario in which the most private information about us is possessed by the state.

Still, key elements of the law enforcement vision have recently fallen into place. The FBI has created a national DNA database by unifying various databases run by the states. Currently, this database is relatively small, mainly containing the DNA files for criminals convicted of sex crimes and other violent offenses. But efforts are under way to exponentially increase the size of the state databases that are the main feeders to the FBI database.

Virginia is on the front line of this quest. Virginia's DNA database program was begun in 1989 and has expanded rapidly since then. Initially, the program only collected DNA samples from violent offenders. The Virginia legislature expanded the program in 1990 to include all felonies and, in 1996, the state added juveniles ages 14 and older who were charged with serious crimes. Now, some state law enforcement officials are talking about expanding the database to cover everyone arrested in Virginia, including those never charged with any crime. Similar proposals are being pushed in New York and elsewhere.

You Can't Hide Your Lyin' Eyes: Face Recognition

New biometric video surveillance systems in Tampa made their debut during the Super Bowl earlier this year, when the cameras scanned the crowd of 100,000 for individuals with outstanding arrest warrants. This system was subsequently installed in downtown Tampa. U.S. national security agencies have far bigger plans for face-recognition technology, with an eye toward thwarting terrorism. The Pentagon has a $50 million initiative, "Human ID at a Distance," and face recognition is a big part of the effort. Face-recognition technology is based on the fact that every face is uniquely shaped. New computer programs can instantly identify key points on a face as seen by a video camera, make split-second measurements of how the points are geometrically combined, and then digitize these measurements through mathematical formulas. These formulas allow unique "faceprints" to be reduced to a tiny data file of less than 100 kilobytes that can be compared in seconds with thousands or even millions of faceprints stored in data banks. Face-recognition software systems are inexpensive; the system in Tampa, which was installed free of charge in an effort to sell the idea to other municipalities, would cost less than $30,000 to put into place.


Do Americans like the idea of wanted criminals being apprehended more easily? Yes. Do most Americans want this security enough to allow public and private entities to track everyone's movements? That's more equivocal. Some of us probably do, while others do not.