Welcome to the Snooper Bowl

  • Happy, yelling faces. Red, drunk- en faces. Faces painted blue. Faces painted purple. Tens of thousands of faces--accompanied by plastic horns and giant foam hands--pouring into Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay last Sunday, ready to watch the biggest football game of the year. Meanwhile, someone--or rather, something--was watching them.

    In a move that has been both hailed and decried, the Tampa Bay police department used the occasion of Super Bowl XXXV to conduct a high-tech surveillance experiment on its unsuspecting guests. In total secrecy (but with the full cooperation of the National Football League), the faces of each of the games' 72,000 attendees were scanned and checked against a database of potential troublemakers. The news, first reported in the St. Petersburg Times, raises some urgent questions: is this the end of crime--or the end of privacy?

    The surveillance system, FaceTrac, is based on technology originally developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to teach computers to recognize their users, and was installed by a Pennsylvania firm called Graphco Technologies. "It takes everything from forehead to chin," explains Tom Colatosti, CEO of Viisage, whose software drives FaceTrac. "It gets the distance between the eyes, then it calculates the other features: thickness of the lips, angle of the cheekbones, and so on." The beauty of the system is that it is disguise-proof. You can grow a beard and put on sunglasses, and FaceTrac will still pick you out of a crowd.

    Tampa police insist that the experiment was harmless. The mugshots against which the fans were checked were drawn from state and federal computer files. According to police spokesperson Joe Durkin, they contained only "known criminals that are attracted to these large events," ranging from "pickpockets, scam artists, con-game players, all the way to terrorists." And the computers were carefully monitored by humans. When the software made a match, it alerted an officer who compared the two faces on screen. Although FaceTrac made 19 positive IDs, no one was arrested.

    Everybody involved stresses that this was a test, not a serious attempt to catch bad guys. For the police, it was a chance to gauge FaceTrac's effectiveness as a crime-fighting tool. For Graphco and its partners, it was a chance to see whether the system could capture tens of thousands of faces in difficult lighting and random angles and process them in real time--while grabbing a little free publicity. "It was a phenomenal success," says Colatosti. "If you had told me the day before that we'd get one, that would be great. The fact that we caught 19, that's astounding!"

    Not everybody is so enthusiastic. Representative Edward Markey (D., Mass.) promptly declared himself "appalled" and issued a statement peppered with words like "Orwellian" and "nightmare." The American Civil Liberties Union is calling for public hearings and has requested all documents relating to the surveillance. "It's chilling, the notion that 100,000 people were subject to video surveillance and had their identities checked by the government," says Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the A.C.L.U. "We think the rights of the fans in Tampa were violated."

    That may be a tough case to make. Under U.S. law, citizens have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public spaces like the Raymond James Stadium. Furthermore, as Colatosti points out, the Super Bowl surveillance isn't the first of its kind, only the most dramatic. The Viisage system is already deployed in some 70 casinos across the country, from Atlantic City to Los Vegas, to identify cheats and card counters. A similar system has been used for the past two years in a tough section of East London called Newham, where British police attribute a drop in crime to the 300 cameras.

    Colatosti insists that the issue is not privacy. "It's simply the fear of change and technology," he says. "Once you've adapted, you look back and say, 'I was afraid of what?'" Perhaps. No one disputes that the deployment of cheap, ubiquitous video cameras has made an environment of near total surveillance technologically feasible. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, however, depends on how much you trust the cameraman.