Jewish World Review July 11, 2001/ 20 Tamuz 5761

Wesley Pruden

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Consumer Reports

Big Brother has a nifty new toy

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- TAMPA, Fla. | A lot of just plain folks are stars on television, and some of them need an agent -- with a law degree.

Maybe you can't fight both City Hall and Big Brother at the same time, but a growing number of harassed citizens are trying.

These candid cameras are invariably described as "high-tech surveillance cameras that utilize an advanced digital face-recognition technology." They have the ability, say their European designers, to pick out specific faces in the crowd. Some of these may be the faces of evil, or at least the faces of bad. Naughty, maybe. Then the techies turn it over to the cops.

That's how it was supposed to work here in Tampa, which installed the cameras in Ybor City, Tampa's restaurant and night-life district, to look for the police department's most-wanted evildoers. Technicians, working in a control room in a secluded spot off the streets, monitor banks of televisionlike screens, linked to cameras searching the sea of faces on the streets and in malls, restaurants and shops. The resolution of the pictures is so detailed that the technicians can see whether diners order their steaks medium or medium-rare.

The computers at the control center aren't interested in dinner, and no chefs have been arrested for ruining a New York strip. Armed with Big Brother's software, the computers instantly match the digitalized characteristics of the faces against the digital images in an enormous database of faces gleaned from driver's-license photographs and other government identification cards. Welcome to George Orwell's world.

But just when the bureaucrats and their tax collectors, ever on the scout for new ways to gouge, rob and swindle, thought Americans so tranquilized (or terrified) that they would suffer any affront or outrage without a whimper, as long as there was television, beer and pizza, a spark of the American spirit emerged.

Several members of the Tampa City Council, having got an earful from their constituents, insist they didn't know what they were doing when they voted for the Big Brother cameras. Three ladies on the council say the resolution to approve the cameras was buried by government lawyers deep within the pages of other important business and they didn't read the fine print when they approved the scheme.

Robert Buckhorn, the councilman who sponsored the legislation, says he didn't call for "full-blown" hearings because the scheme didn't call for "the expenditure of taxpayer money." The angry women have nevertheless demanded a vote to terminate the contract.

The revolt of the peasants has spread far beyond Tampa. Arthur F. Tait III, a lawyer in San Diego, has more than 300 clients already in court, challenging the constitutionality of red-light cameras, in use in 60 U.S. cities. "In other criminal cases you have a right to confront your accuser," he told USA Today. "But with this technology your accuser is a camera."

Most of the red-light cameras are owned and operated by Lockheed Martin IMS, which splits the swag with the cities. This naturally arouses suspicions that the government agencies that say they're in the photography business in the interests of safety are actually in the business of squeezing more revenue out of taxpayers. In Montgomery County, which has issued 54,000 camera citations since it installed the cameras two years ago, greedy bureaucrats want to raise the fine for running a red light from $75 to $250. Has running a red light, as bad as that may be, suddenly become more than twice as bad as it was before Lockheed Martin built these cameras?

The San Diego cops turned off their cameras in the wake of the litigation and refunded the $271 fines imposed at three particularly suspicious intersections. Mr. Tait cited a report drafted for Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the Republican majority leader, that cameras in some jurisdictions have compromised, not enhanced, safety. Traffic engineers in some places are suspected of reducing the yellow-light times to lure motorists into the intersection to be caught running the red.

But the face-recognition cameras, which are right out of Orwell, are the scary ones. Tampa used them first at the Super Bowl, scanning the crowd for the faces of, well, who knows who, or what they were wanted for. The cops made no arrests, but it was, after all, a trial.

"What's next?" asks the Wall Street Journal. "Cameras to catch those smoking, using cell phones or not wearing seat belts?"

The candid-camera issue will no doubt eventually be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court, where the conservatives have often assumed that the state cannot be wrong, and have not always been zealous in protecting fundamental privacy rights.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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