It's showtime - a.k.a Friday night - in the Tampa neighborhood of Ybor City. Thousands in a youthful crowd promenade down 7th Avenue as a cacophony of music blares from the eight-block string of bars that make up this heart of Tampa's nightlife. Young women stroll the streets in short shorts, go-go boots, and halter tops, carrying poster ads for nightclubs.
And the cameras roll. Thirty-six of them hang from telephone polls - primarily along 7th Avenue - and film the hordes below.
"The cameras are just looking to identify people and tell if they are a bad person or not," says Anthony Cintron, a freelance software developer who's sitting in the Centro Ybor courtyard with two friends. "There's so many violent people here."
While the cameras themselves are not new - the Tampa Police Department has used them since 1997 - they're now being coupled with an innovative technology that proponents hail as a breakthrough in law enforcement and that critics call a dangerous threat to personal liberties. For the past week, the cameras have been videotaping passers-by and transferring the images to closed-circuit television - where software compares their faces to those of wanted felons, sex offenders under house arrest, and missing children.
It's the first time this particular software, FaceIt, has been used on public streets in the United States. Similar software has been tried with marginal success - including here in Tampa at this year's Super Bowl. That event, called the "snooper bowl" by some, sparked national debate about the sometimes competing goals of public safety and individual privacy.
Civil libertarians, privacy-rights groups, and some politicians decry Tampa's new policing tool.
"Of course, they sell it on the safety issue," says Payton Knight, legislative director for the American Policy Center, a civil-liberties group in Washington. "People are trading a pound of liberty for an ounce of safety." House Republican leader Dick Armey of Texas has called the cameras a "Big Brother" move.
In an effort to ward off such criticism, Visionics, the company that created the software, has adopted certain policies. It requires signs to be posted warning of the cameras' use, and it keeps only images of known offenders in its database. Nonmatching images are discarded, Visionics says.
"There's definitely been a fundamental misunderstanding of what the system does and doesn't do," says Visionics spokeswoman Frances Zelazny. "The focus has been on a possibility of abuse. Maybe there needs to be more focus on the technology and what it can do."
Ybor City merchants, meanwhile, even those with reservations about the surveillance, hope the cameras can do something for their bottom line. "If people feel safer, and they come down here and spend more money, it's hard to argue with," says Joe Howden, manager of King Corona Cigars. "However, it does make me feel creepy that I'm on camera every time I come to work."
The policeman who introduced the technology to Tampa, Detective Bill Todd, says Ybor City's policing problems make the cameras necessary. The large number and transient nature of the weekend revelers make law enforcement difficult, he says.
But some say the city's underlying intent is to further gentrify this zone by easing the minds of the wealthy clientele it hopes to attract.
Originally a community of primarily Cuban immigrants and cigar factories, Ybor City has been reinvented many times, most recently as a mini version of New Orleans's Bourbon Street, sometimes with as many as 100,000 revelers. The main drag is closed to cars on weekends and for special events.
In a bid to attract an older, more affluent crowd, the city helped build a $45 million outdoor mall and movie complex in the district's center. But a year after Centro Ybor's opening, the clientele remains predominantly below 30, and shops are largely ignored by the night crowds. Violent crime hasn't helped matters. Last year, two men were murdered at different times in almost the identical spot outside a club.
The new technology isn't a panacea, police caution. "I don't think people are going to stop committing spontaneous crime because of [FaceIt]," says Detective Todd. "This is more about stopping the opportunist criminals - the pickpockets, the counterfeiters. If they are already wanted for a crime, and we pick them out of a crowd, then we can prevent them from committing a new crime that night."
London, the only other city to have used Visionics software, has had marginal, if any, success. Visionics itself says only one Newham Borough in London has seen a reduced crime rate.
For now, Todd says the police department will give the new technology a try. The city has free use of it for one year. After that, it will cost $30,000.
And if Tampa's experiment doesn't result in any arrests? "We'll probably not continue to use it," Todd says. But, "the technology is still fairly young. I'm sure there will be improvements."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor