Your face could soon become just another 'bar code'

MICHAEL HOFFMAN / Japan Times | April 24 2006

A remarkable experiment will be conducted later this month at Tokyo's Kasumigaseki Station, reports Weekly Playboy. It involves surveillance cameras, and inevitably raises questions concerning privacy, security and the appropriate balance between the two. How much of the former must we sacrifice to the latter?

At issue is a possible new arm of Japan's burgeoning antiterrorism and anticrime policy. For an hour or two each day over the course of two to three weeks, one of the station's ticket gates will be closed to the general public. A newly-developed biometric camera, capable not only of photographing faces, but of analyzing facial data and in essence converting each person's face into a unique bar code, will be at work, snapping shots of participants in the experiment as they pass back and forth through the gate. Its point is to assess how well the camera works. If it works well, will it be adopted nationwide, in subway stations, train stations and elsewhere? If it is, is Weekly Playboy right to worry about Japan becoming an "indiscriminate high-tech surveillance society?"

One circumstance about the experiment strikes the magazine as peculiar. Why close the ticket gate? Why not simply photograph participants as they mingle with crowds of ordinary passengers?

"There is no legal precedent," explains lawyer Yukio Yamashita, "for introducing a system like this in a public place." Even ordinary surveillance cameras, he says, generate legal issues that have yet to be resolved. Given the enhanced capabilities of the high-tech device in question, "there is a strong possibility its use is unconstitutional or illegal."

For now, in short, it's safest to keep the general public out of the camera's eye.

"It's interesting, though," muses Yamashita, "that the experiment is proceeding in spite of the legal problems."

The "surveillance society," it can be argued, already exists. The electronic eyes that enhanced technology will sharpen are upon us now -- sharp enough already, some would say. Not all patrons of the massage parlors and sex clubs of Tokyo's Kabukicho are pleased about the 50 street cameras in place there. For some at least, the feeling of being watched is stronger than the feeling of being protected, though protection in the face of rising crime was the point when the cameras were installed in 2001.

There are other examples -- the cameras marked "K1," K2," and so on, planted at ticket gates and in front of the toilets at stations along Tokyo's Toei-Oedo Line, for instance. The "K" identifies them as police cameras. Station managers are expected, upon police request, to turn over the data they contain.

More ominous yet, in Weekly Playboy's view, is a new strategy under which police persuade home- andshop-owners to lease anticrime cameras, an approach which in effect seems to deputize private citizens to do police work. The strategy got off the ground last fall in the Seijo district of Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, where, as of February, 55 cameras had been leased for an average fee of 13,000 yen a month.

The cameras are mounted outside houses or shops, and record images that remain intact for a week to 10 days. Police investigating an incident in the neighborhood would have access to these images. No use is made of them, they insist, irrelevant to the investigation.

"The current proliferation of surveillance cameras," says Democratic Party of Japan Lower House rep Takashi Kawamura, "is entirely a matter of whipping up terrorism hysteria."

Partly, maybe. "Entirely?" Certainly not. The arrest last month of confessed child-killer Kenji Imai, based on surveillance camera evidence, is a strong argument that such devices have their place. The question is, how much of one? At what point do the authorities cross the line between protecting us and stalking us? Has privacy become a luxury we can no longer afford?


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