Facing a Future without Anonymity
With the introduction of biometric wizardry, home will be the only place to find privacy
CanWest News Service | December 28, 2004
By RICHARD FOOT
BioDentity Systems Corp. president Joel Shaw says companies like his were motivated by calls from the International Civil Aviation Organization to make airports safer and more efficient.
In London, Ont., 16 video cameras mounted on traffic poles keep a 24-hour watch on downtown streets for the city's police. In New York City, more than 2,400 outdoor video cameras - many operated by private companies - gaze out over the streets of Manhattan alone.
"No matter what, walking through the world these days, you're going to end up on video camera," Halifax privacy lawyer David Fraser said.
Public surveillance isn't a new phenomenon. But despite its creeping presence, Canadians have maintained a measure of anonymity when we venture outside our homes. Video cameras might be watching us in public places, but unless we're famous or infamous, they usually can't identify who we are.
New biometric wizardry - called face-recognition technology - is about to change the way governments do business, and could soon remove the last shreds of anonymity Canadians enjoy in public.
"It will mean that you no longer have any anonymity other than inside your own home, which means you don't really have anonymity at all, because so many people already know you live there," said Mark Hughes, director of the Institute for the Study of Privacy Issues in Victoria, B.C.
Computer scientists are developing systems that not only capture people's images, but also identify them according to the unique geometry of an individual's face.
At an airport, for example, a video surveillance camera would spy someone walking through a terminal building. A computer analyzes the distance between the subject's eyes, nose and chin, features that are hard to change even if the subject is disguised with a wig.
Those biometric measurements are compared almost instantly to a database of stored photographs until the computer finds a match and puts a name to the unwitting subject.
BioDentity Systems, a high-tech firm in Ottawa, has developed equipment it claims would revolutionize the way travellers are processed at airports and border posts.
Company CEO Joel Shaw imagines a world where air passengers are automatically photographed as they approach passport control, while a computer analyzes the biometric information contained on a microchip embedded inside their passport. If the microchip data matches the biometrics of the traveller's face, then the person is considered the legitimate holder of the passport.
Already, Belgium has issued passports containing embedded microchips, Australia is about to do it, and the Canadian government has run tests on the technology.
Shaw said the possibilities are endless - that face-recognition systems could be used to verify the identity of people using automatic teller machines, or renewing their drivers licences at government offices.
The Alberta government announced last year it would start issuing drivers licences containing biometric facial information as a way of preventing licence fraud. In Manitoba, the provincial lottery corporation is installing face-recognition systems alongside the video cameras that watch gamblers inside its casinos.
"There's a big, big marketplace for technology like ours," Shaw said. "This industry is going to be worth billions of dollars in the coming years."
Shaw doubts face-recognition systems will ever be used by governments or businesses for general surveillance in public places.
But Canada's Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart isn't so sure.
"We're very, very concerned about the possible linkage of face-recognition technology to video surveillance," she said. "The possibilities are quite alarming."
Even RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli has warned about the privacy risks of proliferating video surveillance by the country's police forces, and has called for national standards on the subject.
Stoddart plans to publish the first national guidelines in January.
Other authorities, however, are encouraging the use of video cameras and face-recognition techniques to improve public security. Joel Shaw said companies like his didn't develop their products "on a whim," but were motivated by calls from the International Civil Aviation Organization to use computer technology to make airports safer and more efficient.
Shaw argued face-recognition systems actually promote privacy rather than diminish it. Today, customs and passport officials often ask intrusive questions of travellers, such as where they're going, or what is the purpose of their travel. Shaw said face-recognition systems remove the need for all that, relying instead on one strong piece of information: the traveller's proven identity.
"I actually believe the privacy issue is one of the most compelling reasons to go forward with this technology," he said.
But privacy advocate Mark Hughes worries face-recognition surveillance will proliferate into other areas. Like Zaccardelli, he suspects municipal police will want to combine the technology with the security cameras more and more Canadian cities are installing in public places.
Using photographic databases gleaned from drivers licences or passports, almost any citizen could one day be identified simply walking down a city street.
"There's no doubt face recognition will become widespread," Hughes said. "Every month, there's a new town in Canada that's moving toward policed video surveillance."
In Canada today, pedestrians aren't required to show identification to police unless they're suspected of some wrongdoing. But, if face-recognition cameras can identify us as we walk through a public place, that assumption of anonymity would be violated.
"You don't have anonymity driving in your car because of your licence plate," Hughes said. "What face-recognition and video surveillance will mean, is that you've got a licence plate stuck to your forehead, wherever you go."