If Tampa police are really interested in catching felons partying in Ybor City, then Saturday offered a prime opportunity. OJ Simpson, Charles Manson and even Pee Wee Herman made the scene as more than 100 protestors presented masked mugs — and a few obscene gestures — to the cameras outside Centro Ybor. The Tampa Bay Action Group organized the demonstration to protest the police department's use of Face It, a new facial scanning technology. According to police, the newly implemented program maps the faces of Ybor revelers and compares them to databases of 30,000 wanted criminals who might want to do something a little more sinister than toss back martinis and pay way too much to watch a movie in a kid-less theatre. Members of TBAG along with the American Civil Liberties Union and many concerned citizens say that it's the technology that's sinister.
"Basically the citizens of Tampa Bay are now subjected to a police lineup for the crime of walking down the street," said Darlene Williams, a member of the ACLU's board of directors in Tampa. Tampa is using the technology on a free trial basis before deciding whether to pay for the program. It's the first city in the country to use the technology on public streets, and the issue has drawn national media attention. Dick Armey, the Republican U.S. House Majority Leader, is calling for the General Accounting Office to look into the ways government is funding these face-recognition software programs and has asked appropriate House committees to investigate the use of these programs by law enforcement.
Members of Tampa's City Council claimed they were unaware that they voted to install the program in the first place.
The protestors on Saturday made it clear that now the City Council is aware that the technology is here, and they want their representatives to make it go away. Protestors hope that others will join them at Thursday's City Council meeting to demand just that.
Williams said the city has been too willing to put new technology in place that infringes on the public's privacy without informing the public that it's being used. During what some refer to as the "Snooper Bowl," the face-scanning technology was in place both at the stadium and in Ybor City, but few were aware of it. The ACLU has also made public information requests to find out what databases were being used then, but no one's telling.
Joe Redner stood outside Centro Ybor, wearing dark prescription shades. He didn't grab a drum, don a mask or chime in with the chanters, but he was protesting nonetheless.
Although Redner does say the technology is an invasion of privacy, he also sees it as an indication of how city officials feel about non-corporate citizens.
"Just look around the city of Tampa; the city councilmen, and their mayor, Greco, are no friends of freedom, believe me," he said. "I think they just don't have enough sense to know when they're intruding on people's rights and I think that's been shown in a whole numerous things that have happened and laws that they have passed recently."
And he doesn't just mean the law that took away the right to have a hot chick dance on your lap. He's also talking about the ban on passing out fliers and leaflets in Ybor City. "The vendor law in Ybor City was another one," he says pointing to some vendors selling their wares unmolested outside Centro.
"The law was implemented on the people on the street and it's all illegal and they're gone," Redner said of the vendors who used to sell their wares independently in Ybor. "Centro Ybor comes in right after they passed the law and they put their own vendors out there and nobody bothers them."
Many people, like Redner, see the Face It technology as just another way to make Ybor a better place for businesses — not Tampa's citizens. The idea is to let the shiny, happy people with money to burn knock back their Bahama Breezes in peace without being frightened by those other people.
"Much of this technology is going to be used to continue the stigmatization of black people in America," said protestor Bill Hamilton.
Williams agrees potential abuses abound. "There are the false positives, the false negatives. You know it can be utilized in private industry but where does it stop? You can be tracked walking down the street; your habits can be followed. The abuses are limitless."
Not everyone was concerned about having Big Brother looking over his or her shoulder. Mike Nerad came to Ybor City to have a good time and didn't see the protestors' point of view. "If you're just down here drinking and having a good time, I don't see a problem with it unless you're a convict or you're wanted."
Nerad said that the technology made him feel safer and that giving up a little freedom was worth it to him. Opponents of the technology say that giving up a little personal freedom today could lead to not having any more freedom to give up tomorrow.
Correspondent Rochelle Renford can be reached at [email protected].