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Facepalm: new program lands facial recognition software in cops' hands

Facepalm: new program lands facial recognition software in cops' hands


'This pilot program is putting metadata to use in the field in real time.'

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When San Diego police detain criminal suspects, they don’t only rely on Q&As to extract information about the person in cuffs. Using new facial recognition technology, San Diego police can now match field images with about 348,000 San Diego County arrestees — all they need is a tablet or a smartphone. In an in-depth report released yesterday, the Center for Investigative Reporting covered the new tech and its implications. "The little-known program could become the largest expansion of facial recognition technology by US law enforcement," CIR says. "Amid an international debate over collecting and sharing huge amounts of data on the public, this pilot program is putting that metadata to use in the field in real time."

As CIR noted, facial recognition technology has not yet been tested in court, but San Diego and other police forces are going full speed ahead with the program. As many as 133 tablets and smartphones have landed in the hands of police at 25 San Diego area law enforcement agencies since the beginning of this year.

One officer interviewed by CIR claimed the technology was used not to identify perps but "to identify injured people who were unresponsive and had no identifying documents." Another said, "If you're not in a criminal database, you have nothing to hide."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which had been gathering information on the project prior to CIR’s report, had a different take. According to documents obtained by EFF, facial recognition fails about 20 percent of the time. That could lead to innocent people being ensnared in the criminal justice system for no reason. An EFF post last night summarized the group’s opposition to the program:

Not so long ago, our society would have recoiled from this type of stop and search. As an Arizona Supreme Court justice noted in 1983, "[t]he thought that an American can be compelled to 'show his papers' before exercising his right to walk the streets, drive the highways or board the trains is repugnant to American institutions and ideals." In 1990, the Florida Supreme Court said police questioning based on no individualized suspicion was "foreign to any fair reading of the Constitution" and compared it to "Hitler's Berlin," " Stalin's Moscow," and "white supremacist South Africa." It’s disheartening to think how much has changed in the last 23 years and especially in the years since 9/11.