When several armed robberies occurred recently in Lancaster, Calif., police had little of use on the two suspects. Then, a reliable image of one suspect turned up from a surveillance camera.
In years past, that still might not have been enough for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to close the case.
But with the help of new facial recognition software, investigators plugged the image into a database of booking photos and quickly came up with a possible match. That led to a pair of arrests on Jan. 27.
Facial recognition technology is growing rapidly, both in the consumer world and among police, but privacy advocates are troubled by the potential for intrusion and misuse.
Police in Tampa, Fla., created an uproar several years ago when they installed facial recognition devices in an entertainment district, hoping to identify wanted criminals. The system eventually was unplugged, because it didn’t catch any perpetrators. A similar effort at the 2001 Super Bowl also netted few results.
Things have changed since then. Agencies like the cutting-edge Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in Florida are using millions of jail mug shots to double-check identities if they believe someone is lying about who they are. Deputies can simply snap a photo of the person and begin a search using their in-car laptop.
That’s how the agency unmasked one man with an active warrant. In another 2009 incident, the North Miami Police Department asked Pinellas County deputies for help tracking down a bank robbery suspect, and they did so with a surveillance video image that led to an arrest.
“All of this was accomplished by lunch time,” the sheriff’s office boasted then in a press release. Pinellas County also became the first in the nation that year to include the use of driver’s license photos in its searching capabilities, rather than just individuals who have been arrested.
In the meantime, outcry over the technology is heating up. The Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington last week called for a moratorium on the use of facial recognition in consumer products. Namely, they’ve targeted a Facebook feature that enables users to tag the photos of friends using special software.
The advocacy group submitted remarks to the Federal Trade Commission expressing concern about private companies stockpiling faceprints for their own use and the ability of consumers to control the disclosure of their own identity. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has complained in the past about the U.S. military compiling biometric data on Iraqi citizens, because it could be linked to religious or ethnic affiliations and used to single people out.
Among other things, the group is concerned that facial recognition could undermine the right to anonymity, lead to mistaken identities if it doesn’t work properly or result in identity theft if databases containing the images are hacked. Faceprints can’t be replaced as easily as credit cards, the group argues.
“Facial recognition system errors would lead to innocent people being falsely matched to watch lists or databases, while suspects would pass through the system unrecognized,” the Electronic Privacy Information Center stated in a Jan. 31 notice to the FTC...