Tampa police drop failing face recognition system

Jim Whitehead ejw at cse.ucsc.edu
Thu Aug 21 15:33:05 PDT 2003

Interesting item from EPIC Alert 10.17, August 21, 2003. EPIC Alert is
published by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).


- Jim

[2] Tampa Police Drop Failing Face Recognition System

The Tampa Police Department has abandoned the face recognition
software used in conjunction with its video surveillance cameras,
citing the system's failure to recognize anyone wanted by the
authorities over a two-year period.  Tampa authorities first used the
technology during the 2001 Super Bowl -- without any success -- when
they systematically scanned every attendee's face to compare it with a
list of suspects' mug shots.  The system used in Tampa never led to
any arrests or positive identifications, though occasionally wrongly
identified innocent people as wanted felons.

Face recognition technology is one of the tools used in biometrics,
the science of identifying people using parts of their bodies.
Coupled with video surveillance, the technology captures "signatures"
of faces on high-resolution cameras and compares them with mug shots
in police databases, which generally include people with outstanding
felony warrants, and those on the FBI's "most wanted" list and
terrorist watchlists.

Face recognition technology has never been proved to be reliable.
Studies sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense have shown the
system is accurate only fifty-four percent of the time and can be
significantly compromised by changes in lighting, weight, hair,
sunglasses, subject cooperation, and other factors.  Likewise, tests
on the face recognition systems in operation at Palm Beach Airport in
Florida have shown the technology to be ineffective and error-ridden,
leading authorities to forego use of face-recognition equipment.  In
Virginia Beach, Virginia, police use of the technology has not
resulted in the apprehension of a single wanted person in over a year.

In Washington, DC, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) two years
ago began installing a wide network of cameras without prior
authorization from the City Council.  Last year, under pressure from
Congress, the Council and civil liberties organizations, the MPD
agreed to comply with a set of video surveillance guidelines.  The
guidelines do not, however, regulate the use of facial recognition
tools.  Although the technology apparently has never been used in
conjunction with the DC cameras, nothing would prevent the police from
doing so; the MPD has always left open that possibility and has
acknowledged that its cameras could easily operate with face
recognition tools.  A bill pending in the DC Council would flatly
prohibit any use of face recognition technology without specific
legislative authorization.  The United States Park Police, a federal
agency with jurisdiction over DC's federal lands, recently released a
"Closed Circuit Television Policy" that leaves open the possibility of
using the technology with its cameras located on the Mall and other
federal areas of the nation's capital.

More information about video surveillance is available at:


More information about face recognition is available at:


Information about EPIC's Observing Surveillance project is available


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