Friday, August 27, 2004
This Ain't No Mardi Gras: Big Brother and the RNC Mask Ban 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Having posted late in the day about the reinstatement of New York City's ban on mask-wearing just in time for the Republican National Convention, I didn't have the opportunity to dig as deeply into the story as I'd have liked. So, here's some more on the no-mask zone.

The 'mask law' has always been enforced selectively since its inception in 1845, and was a means by which authorities could prosecute troublemakers ranging from costumed tenant-farmer insurrectionists in the Hudson Valley, to pre-Stonewall drag queens. It was ruled a violation of First Amendment rights in late 1999 following a suit by - of all groups - the Ku Klux Klan, who felt they were unjustly prevented from marching in a NY rally. Then, a January 2004 ruling overturned the lower court decision, saying the state's ban on the wearing of masks in public places is in fact constitutional. CNN reported in January,
"In the end, we all know what the (New York) statute is after -- the wearing of hoods, such as by the KKK. That may or may not be a bad thing," said Robert Destro, a professor of law and free-speech expert at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "These laws need to clearly state the government's interest." The hoods include a mask.

The 3-0 ruling by the appeals court panel reversed a district judge's decision that found the state law violated the First Amendment rights of the Butler, Indiana-based Church of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan...[a]lso, he said, anti-mask laws theoretically could be extended to affect people at various public gatherings, such as annual Mardi Gras celebrations.
As I briefly mentioned in the comments of my previous post, I suspect that the mask ban reinstatement comes in part from planned use of digital facial-recognition technology [Viisage is the best-known maker of DFR systems, and reportedly 90% of their business comes from government and military contracts] with video camera surveillance of protest zones during the convention. It isn't that paranoid a suggestion, as there are numerous reports that these systems will be used in New York during the Republican National Convention, including this story from May that originally appeared on the NY1 newsfeed:
NYPD Planning To Install Its Own Surveillance Cameras
MAY 02ND, 2004

The NYPD is reportedly planning to install hundreds of cameras around the city that can automatically recognize the faces of suspected criminals or terrorists. There are already tens of thousands of private surveillance cameras trained on city streets and buildings. According to the New York Post, the NYPD wants to install its own centralized system.

NYPD Deputy Commissioner James Onalfo is working on a plan for up to $1 billion in new computer and camera equipment, according to the Post. Facial recognition technology would allow police to pick out and follow suspects in high-crime areas and near potential terrorist targets.

Police reportedly hope to install many of the cameras before this summer's Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden.
You may have very well have been face-scanned at some point without your knowledge, since venues utilizing these systems generally don't advertise the fact beyond cursory warnings - like small signs that tell you "these premises are under video surveillance." Baseline.com talks about Viisage's growing business:
Customers using Viisage's facial-recognition software, which can compare a photo against a database of millions and find the most likely matches in just a few seconds, include the U.S. Department of Defense, Berlin's airports and more than 100 casinos, such as the MGM Mirage, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts and the Stratosphere Casino Hotel & Tower.
RNCWatch, a newsblog spotlighting events leading up the convention, recently reported,
From Engadget: "In preparation for next week's Republican National Convention the Federal Protective Service is outfitting 200 police officers with special helmet-mounted surveillance cameras that can wirelessly beam a video feed back to a control room so that service commanders can see exactly what's going on in the streets and more effectively issue orders."
According to the American Civil Liberties Union,
[a]nyone who claims that facial recognition technology is an effective law enforcement tool is probably working for the one of the companies trying to sell it to the government. Facial recognition software is easily tripped up by changes in hairstyle or facial hair, by aging, weight gain or loss, and by simple disguises.

A study by the Department of Defense found very high error rates even under ideal conditions, where the subject is staring directly into the camera under bright lights. The study found very high rates of both "false positives" (wrongly matching people with photos of others) and "false negatives" (not catching people in the database). That suggests that if installed in airports, these systems would miss a high proportion of suspects included in the photo database, and flag huge numbers of innocent people - thereby lessening vigilance, wasting precious manpower resources, and creating a false sense of security.
In addition,
questions have been raised about how well the software works on dark-skinned people, whose features may not appear clearly on lenses optimized for light-skinned people...

While video surveillance by the police isn't as widespread in the U.S., an investigation by the Detroit Free Press (and followup) shows the kind of abuses that can happen. Looking at how a database available to Michigan law enforcement was used, the newspaper found that officers had used it to help their friends or themselves stalk women, threaten motorists, track estranged spouses - even to intimidate political opponents. The unavoidable truth is that the more people who have access to a database, the more likely that there will be abuse.

Facial recognition is especially subject to abuse because it can be used in a passive way that doesn't require the knowledge, consent, or participation of the subject. It's possible to put a camera up anywhere and train it on people; modern cameras can easily view faces from over 100 yards away. People act differently when they are being watched, and have the right to know if their movements and identities are being captured.
So, while officials are giving the line that the mask ban is for "the protesters' own safety," there appears to be a much more immediate, disturbing reason for the law's return.
"With a fingerprint, we get confirmation of someone's identity that is 100% accurate a great deal of the time," says Capt. Alecia Edgington of the Kentucky State Police. "With facial recognition, that threshold has not been reached yet."
What if protesters all showed up wearing Groucho Glasses?

ACLU's statements on facial recognition software [FAQ here] and video surveillance of public areas
ViiSAGE home page
EPIC [Electronic Privacy Information Center] on facial recognition software
The Detroit Free Press investigation of police abuses of facial recognition databases
"ViiSAGE Technology: Face Invaders" in Baseline - The Project Management Center
RNCWatch [NYC Indymedia Center]
CNN story on the NY Klan mask ban, January 23, 2004