The Golden Age Of Surveillance

Law enforcement authorities, including U.S. Postal Inspectors, search for evidence at the home of John P. Tomkins, Wednesday, April 25, 2007, in Dubuque, Iowa. Tomkins was arrested Wednesday and charged with sending dud pipe bombs and threatening letters to investment companies in Denver and Kansas City in an effort to drive up stock prices. Authorities said he signed the messages "The Bishop." AP

The debate over ever-more sophisticated ways of snooping on the public at home, at work, and at play is beginning to move onto the desks of lawyers and lawmakers.

The U.S. Supreme Court is to hear this week a case on whether police violated the constitutional rights of an Oregon man who was arrested after authorities using heat-detection equipment to secretly monitor his house found the pattern that led them to believe he was growing marijuana indoors.

Lawmakers are also feeling the heat, from a new group called the Privacy Coalition, which is an alliance of groups from all over the political spectrum, from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center to the United Auto Workers union and the conservative group Eagle Forum.

The Coalition is challenging state and national lawmakers to sign a pledge to work to restrict surveillance technologies such as those used for locational tracking, video surveillance, electronic profiling, and workplace monitoring and work to promote privacy-enhancing technologies that limit the collection of personal information.

In most cases, that would mean new laws, and even some of the minds behind the new "search, watch and identify" technologies agree that some legal protections might be in order.

At least 19 bills seeking to address privacy issues have been introduced in the new Congress, at least 74 privacy bills are under consideration by state lawmakers in California, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, and privacy issues are being studied by a number of government agencies.

Much of the controversy has focused on biometrics - the science of using physical measurements to identify individuals - such as the Facefinder video surveillance tool tested at this year's Super Bowl in Tampa.

The technology is based on the theory that every person's face is a slight spatial deviation on 128 facial types, each of which is represented in a numerical code that can be quickly compared with the faces in a database of thousands.

Law enforcement officials argue that the comparison of the surveillance photos taken of the 100,000 fans at the Super Bowl to mugshots on file was no more intrusive than the routine video surveillance Americans encounter each day in stores, banks, office buildings and apartment buildings.

Critics disagree, saying the biometric face-recognition system essentially puts everyone in a police lineup.

"When the government does it, they ought to be doing it under the basis of reasonable suspicion that some crime is taking place," argues ACLU associate director Barry Steinhardt, in an interview with CBS News Correspondent John Roberts.

Bob Buckhorn, Tampa City Councilman, says they did have a good reason. He says the Super Bowl clearly was "an easy target for somebody, if they were inclined to commit a terrorist act. I think that supercedes the arguments the ACLU has made."

Advocates of biometrics also argue that its techology is actually less invasive than others used by governments and law enforcement, because there is no need to provide vast amounts of financial and other personal data.

"With our system, we do a quick match, which lasts about a second, and then it's (the data) is completely dropped," explains Tom Colatosti, of Viisage Technology, the maker of the biometric surveillance system used at the Super Bowl. "We think it's very passive…It's certainly less intrusive than going to an airport and having someone check your luggage."

Facefinder was developed by Viisage in partnership with Raytheon Co. and Graphco Technologies. Graphco's vice president for marketing, Barry Hodge, acknowledges that there is a need for caution.

"There needs to be a really open, positive public forum…as to what extent we as individuals are willing to compromise our personal privacy for public safety," says Hodge. "It's like any other tool, some of which are very, very positive and some of which could be very damaging if misused."

Biometric systems are now being tested at airports and are being studied for use on driver's licenses and government employee ID cards, on the theory that they would be less prone to fraud. It's also been suggested that they should be used at the polls, to prevent the voter irregularities that made so many headlines this past fall.

In Yemen, Biometric ID cards using fingerprint templates are now being phased in, with some 3,000 cards issued last fall, and the expectation of millions of cards being in use within the next few years.

While law enforcement use of video scrutiny is controversial, private industry has been using it for years.

One such use is the network of 700 cameras used to search for suspicious characters at the Trump Marina Casino in Atlantic City, zooming in on individual faces and then comparing them to pictures of specific individuals already on file.

"This system can scan about 10 thousand images in about 1.5 seconds," says Charles Guenther, the casino's director of surveillance. "We think the technology is here and it's here to stay. It's only going to get better."

Other private industry uses of biometrics include scans of the iris for personal identification and a plan by BMW to use fingerprint sensor technology as a security lock in addition to car keys. The fingerprint sensor would also be able to deliver the driver's preferences on things such as seat height, mirror adjustments, and even choice of radio station.



© MMI Viacom Internet Services Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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