Monday, August 25, 2003

Face-It, Fox, and Failure

It's a toss-up for Loser Of The Week: Fox News Channel or the makers of Face-It.

Rupert Murdoch's network had a bad day in court on Friday. They were suing Al Franken over using the phrase "Fair & Balanced" in the title of his new book. They claim it's their trademark and he's violating it. On Friday, a judge looked at the lawsuit and said, "There are hard cases and there are easy cases. This is an easy case. This case is wholly without merit both factually and legally." To make matters worse, the ploy really backfired because all the publicity helped Franken's book leap to the top of the bestsellers list. On the other hand...wait, there is no other hand. Game over, you lose.

Joining Fox in the land of the futile is Visionics, the company that makes the Face-It facial-recognition software that was hooked up to 36 cameras installed in the Ybor City entertainment district of Tampa, Florida. The idea was that the technology would pick out faces from the crowd and run them through a criminal database to search for matches. The program was ill-advised from the get-go, what with its Orwellian overtones, checking people at random to see if they were crooks. What a nice assumption to make about your fellow Americans!

To say that the system didn't work would be an understatement. Take the example of Rob Milliron, who had lunch one day not knowing that the police had snapped his photo with one of the Face-It cameras to demonstrate it for the media. A woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma, saw his picture and called the cops to report that he was her ex-husband and was wanted on felony child neglect charges. The software confirmed it. But when three cops showed up at Rob's construction job site to interrogate him, it turned out the woman and the computer were wrong. He'd never been married, had no kids, and had never set foot in Oklahoma. Whoops!

Still, Tampa kept the Face-It cameras rolling for two years, until last week, when they announced they were ending the program. Why? Because in those 24 months, it led to exactly zero arrests. That's zero as in zip, zilch, zippo, nada, squat, the big goose egg. Not a single criminal was ensnared by this high-tech boondoggle.

Now Face-It must face the ugly fact that their big deal crime-fighting concept caught the same number of bad guys as my nine-year-old daughter did! And her efforts were hampered by an earlier bed time.

That didn't bother Tampa police spinmeister Joe Durkin, who said, "I wouldn't consider it a failure." You're right, Joe. It's really only a failure if you consider its complete lack of success as measured by any objective standard. Or are you just trying to be fair and balanced?