Big Brother In Your Face:

Biometrics at the Super Bowl

Revolutionary Worker #1093, March 4, 2001, posted at

The RW received the following correspondence:

Dear RW:

I didn't go to this year's Super Bowl. I did go to the Bush Inaugural two weeks earlier. I came away from that event very impressed with the level of resistance in the streets. And I was also struck by the outrageous measures by the police against protesters.

I stood on the lines waiting to go through a gauntlet of cops who were checking bags two, three, four times, just to get to the parade area. I wandered through downtown DC amid the legions of police--in uniform and undercover--surrounded by concrete and metal barricades, all under the constant glare of police-sharpshooters. I went to the Inaugural and thought: how much more gestapo can they get? And then I heard about what the police did at the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl is supposed to be "entertainment," even if it is entertainment with a high ticket price. So imagine the shock of those that attended this year's Super Bowl to discover that everyone who entered the stadium had their faces electronically compared against a database of "known criminals." U.S.A. 2001: The Super Bowl meets "biometric technology."

Biometrics is a technology that tries to establish if someone's face on the street matches an image stored on a computer. It works by turning a facial image into a mathematical formula and then matching that formula against formulas on file. In the case of the Super Bowl, facial formulas were culled from criminal justice records.

The authorities set up cameras at the entrances to the Raymond James Stadium and connected them to a computer room inside a room. Tens of thousands of people had their faces videoed and then these pictures were fed into computers that, in less than a second, compared the facial characteristics--128 of them, from size of the nose to cut of the jaw--against a database of images.

Officials said the stored images were of "criminals known to work large events." But it is revealing of the bigger hand in this that the images on file were supplied by federal and state authorities--they did not even include people in the local police files. In this Super Bowl "experiment" 19 people were "matched," though none of them were arrested.

The system used at the Super Bowl is called FaceTrac, and is made by a company called Viisage Technology. Viisage was excited about getting to use this in Tampa. They had offered to test it at the Super Bowl in Atlanta last year but for some reason were turned down. This year they had better luck.

The technology was initially developed for security at Army compounds. It has since been tested at the Utah Department of Corrections. Officials in Utah are also thinking of using it for the Winter Olympics in 2002. It's already operating at 70 casinos in Las Vegas to identify card cheats and others being closely scrutinized by casino owners..

Police also recently installed the whole system in the bar district in Tampa. Here they have 22 cameras going 24 hours a day, looking for "criminals." But this particular trial is modest compared to what another U.S. company set up in England. The East London neighborhood of Newham has 300 cameras posted around the center of town and at public transportation exits.

Facial Profiling

The ruling class is racing to see how they can utilize this technology to maximum advantage. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a $50 million program called "Human ID at a Distance," which has facial recognition as a major component.

But biometrics isn't just being looked at for law enforcement purposes. The St. Petersburg Times reported, "The system's biggest opportunities lie in more benign functions: identifying customers at ATMs or participants in welfare programs, and screening people who want to enter secure workplace areas." Such Big Brother surveillance of people going about their daily lives is hardly benign--especially when added to all the repressive measures and methods of invading people's privacy already being used by the government.

The use of the system at the Super Bowl was uncovered by a local paper in Florida, and in turn the major media picked up the story. While expressing unease about the intrusive nature of this technology--they gave a lot of air time to its defenders. What these defenders had to say was really quite incredible--and revealing.

Tampa Police spokesman Joe Durkin, in a striking bit of doublespeak, told CNN, "Preparation, not paranoia, is what keeps you safe."

Former NYPD Police Commissioner Howard Safir raved about the benefits of this technology, saying it was a good way to protect people without (huh?) invading their privacy. He told CNN, "We live in a country with open borders where we allow freedom of movement. We don't require people to carry identity cards. We don't stop people all over the place to get their identity." This is some not-too-hidden hypocrisy. Safir knows that the NYPD routinely stops tens of thousands of people, mainly African Americans and Latinos, every year for no good reason--a practice that reached staggering levels under his command. He also knows that anyone stopped who doesn't have satisfactory ID is then put through the system--sent to jail for anywhere from 1 to 3 days. What Safir really must like about biometrics is that it allows the police to cast the net of criminalization even wider.

The ACLU correctly called this out as a "computerized police lineup" and called for hearings in Tampa. ACLU Associate Director Barry Steinhardt said, "Inevitably, this technology is going to be used against people who are most powerless and most despised in the society, whether it is people of minority religious views or it's people of color. That is who the technology is going to be used against, particularly as the technology becomes more pervasive."

Steinhardt pointed out that in England, the cameras were disproportionately turned on "people of color and attractive young women." You can imagine how something like this would be used in the U.S., where police routinely practice racial profiling and sexual harassment (if not rape) of women.

Perhaps the most twisted justification for the use of biometrics by the police was the repeated claim that "this is not an invasion of privacy." Tampa police officials explained that the courts have upheld the principle that people who go to public events don't have "an expectation of privacy." So, they argue, such people in public are "fair game." Defenders of the Super Bowl experiment have said since there were signs in the area indicating "video surveillance" in effect, that people were fairly informed and warned. These signs said nothing of the FaceTrac system--which by its very nature is more effective when it operates secretly. And the very fact that people are being "electronically" and involuntarily dragged into police scrutiny makes it obvious that this technology relies on invading people's right of privacy.

The developers of this technology and the police loudly claim there is nothing to worry about, especially since they say the tens of thousands of pictures scanned into the system--which aren't matched with a "criminal":--are thrown away. But as more than one person has pointed out, this is hardly reassuring--and a claim only a fool would believe.

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