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.