The federal government is making progress on developing a surveillance system that would pair computers with video cameras to scan crowds and automatically identify people by their faces. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/21/us/facial-scanning-is-making-gains-in-surveillance.html?ref=us The Department of Homeland Security tested a crowd-scanning project called the Biometric Optical Surveillance System — or BOSS — last fall after two years of government-financed development.
Researchers say they are making significant advances. That alarms privacy advocates, who say that now is the time for the government to establish oversight rules and limits on how it will someday be used.
There have been stabs for over a decade at building a system that would help match faces in a crowd with names.
The automated matching of close-up photographs has improved greatly in recent years, and companies like Facebook have experimented with it using still pictures.
the BOSS research began as an effort to help the military detect potential suicide bombers and other terrorists overseas at “outdoor polling places in Afghanistan and Iraq,” among other sites, documents show.
In 2010, the effort was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security to be developed for use instead by the police in the United States.
The system consists of two towers bearing “robotic camera structures” with infrared and distance sensors. They take pictures of the same subject from slightly different angles. A computer then processes the images into a “3-D signature” built from data like the ratios between various points on someone’s face to be compared against data about faces stored in a watch-list database, the documents show.
Automated face recognition using photographs taken under ideal conditions, like passport pictures and mug shots is already being used. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is spending $1 billion to roll out a Next Generation Identification system that will provide a national mug shot database to help local police departments verify identities.
“This technology is always billed as antiterrorism, but then it drifts into other applications,” Ginger McCall, a privacy advocate said. “We need a real conversation about whether and how we want this technology to be used, and now is the time for that debate.”
Ms. McCall feared any effort to systematically track everyone’s public movements by using a comprehensive database of driver’s license photographs.
The effort to build the BOSS system involved a two-year, $5.2 million federal contract given to Electronic Warfare Associates, a Washington-area military contractor with a branch office in Kentucky. The company has been working with the laboratory of Aly Farag, a University of Louisville computer vision specialist, and the contract was steered to the firm by an earmark request in a 2010 appropriations bill by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.