San Diego Police Department Uses Facial Recognition Software

This week, the New York Times published an article about law enforcement’s use of facial recognition software. The article specifically mentions the San Diego Police Department, and accuses it of misuse of this software. Facial recognition software is a new technology to local law enforcement. It was first utilized by the military, and critics of the technology worry about violations of civil liberties, privacy, and misidentification of individuals. The New York Times story includes an account of two local men who said they felt San Diego police violated their rights when the facial recognition software was used on them. Neither man was actually arrested.

One of the men, Eric Hanson, a retired firefighter with no criminal record says that he was “stopped by the police after a dispute with a man he said was prowler. He was ordered to sit on a curb while officers took his photo with an iPad and ran it through facial recognition software. The officers also used a cotton swab to collect a DNA sample from the inside of his cheek. I was thinking, ‘Why are you taking pictures of me, doing this to me?’ I felt like my identity was being stolen. I’m a straight-up, no lie, cheat or steal guy, and I get treated like a criminal.”

San Diego police spokesman Lieutenant Scott Wahl agreed to be interviewed for the New York Times story because he says that he understands the concerns and debate about the use of facial recognition technology by local police. He explained why it is important to be transparent, to ensure people understand the software. The New York Times article claimed that the software is used “with little oversight or training, and that San Diego County law enforcement are building a massive database of photos of people, whether they are suspected of crimes or not.” Wahl refutes these claims and says that they simply are untrue.

Face First, the software used by San Diego Police, is meant to assist with the identification of suspects or individuals who are legally detained and refuse to identify themselves, cannot identify themselves, or may be lying about their identities. The software also can be used to identify victims of crime without identification on them. Law enforcement uses a tablet to take a person’s picture while in the field, and then the software analyzes a person’s face and creates a template which is then run through a database of jail booking photos to try to find a match. The San Diego County Database has photos of approximately 348,000 arrestees. Wahl says that “it matches against existing Sheriff’s Department booking photos only. There is no DMV nexus, no FBI secret database. If you’ve never been arrested before, never been booked into county jail, your picture would never show up. If there is no match, then the officer must delete the picture from the tablet, per policy. It does not get collected into a database. We’re not collecting personal information and storing it into a database.” Wahl also claims that every single officer that uses the software is well trained.

The debate on this issue will surely continue. There are people that feel that this software violates a number of rights, particularly privacy. If the software is not properly utilized, it is certainly possible that it can cross a line into violation of rights. However, if the software is able to help police recognize dangerous criminals and help contact the families of crime victims when properly utilized, it is arguably a positive use of technology.

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