Police to begin using facial recognition devices

Several dozen law enforcement agencies across the nation are getting set to roll out portable facial recognition devices and that has many people worried.

With the device, which attaches to an iPhone, an officer can snap a picture of a face from up to five feet away, or scan a person’s irises from up to six inches away, and do an immediate search to see if there is a match with a database of people with criminal records. The gadget also collects fingerprints.

Some agencies are ecstatic to begin using these devices.

Some law-enforcement officials believe the new gear could be an important weapon against crime. “We are living in an age where a lot of people try to live under the radar and in the shadows and avoid law enforcement,” says Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County, Ariz. He is equipping 75 deputies under his command with the device in the fall.

Mr. Babeu says his deputies will start using the gadget try to identify people they stop who aren’t carrying other identification. (In Arizona, police can arrest people not carrying valid photo ID.) Mr. Babeu says it also will be used to verify the identity of people arrested for a crime, potentially exposing the use of fake IDs and quickly determining a person’s criminal history.

Other police agencies are a little more hesitant about the devices because of the legal implications involved.

Other police officials urge caution in using the device, which is known as Moris, for Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System. Bill Johnson, executive director at the National Association of Police Organizations, a group of police unions and associations, says he is concerned in particular that iris scanning, which must be done at close range and requires special technology, could be considered a “search.”

“Even technically if some law says you can do it, it is not worth it—it is just not the right thing to do,” Mr. Johnson says, adding that developing guidelines for use of the technology is “a moral responsibility.”

Sheriff Joseph McDonald Jr. of Plymouth County in Massachusetts, who tested early versions of the device and will get a handful of them in the fall, says he plans to tell his deputies not to use facial recognition without reasonable suspicion. “Two hundred years of constitutional law isn’t going away,” he says.

The mere fact that we even have such devices means that constitutional law is going to change and it isn’t going to change in favor of maintaining privacy.

William Conlon, chief of police in Brockton, Mass., says he doesn’t consider the mobile device to be an invasion of privacy. “It is just a picture. If you are out in public, I can take a picture of anybody,” says Mr. Conlon, whose police department tested a prototype last summer and is planning to adopt the device. “Most people will say, ‘I don’t have anything to hide, go ahead.’”

First of all, if some random picture takes a photo of me while I’m out in public, it’s highly unlikely that they even know who I am. I am just part of the background to their picture. Second, everyone has something to hide. This argument is trotted out every single time a law enforcement agency wants to encroach on your privacy. Third, it’s not just a picture. It’s capturing specific, identifiable biometric details about my person. A random photographer is not going to approach me and take a photograph from six inches away.

This personal, biometric information is then going to be placed into a database to be checked against others in a criminal database. What recourse would I then have to get my photo out of the database? What happens to false positive? How many lives will be ruined because someone is falsely picked as a pedophile and then later released? The news already reported it and that person’s life will be ruined.

This technology is far from perfect. Would you want to be placed in a database with a device that has a high failure rate? Who is going to control the database? How can you get removed from the database? Just what are the privacy implications?

Do we really want to live in a society where police can just come up to you randomly and take a picture of you and put you in a database?

By allowing this sort of behavior from the police and the state, you are allowing the police state to creep into everyday lives where they have no business being. Why should an individual ever allow the police to just randomly come up to you and take your picture just to check and see if you’re doing something wrong? Even if this is used during regular traffic stops, it’s still an illegal search. Criminalizing everyday behavior is never good for individuals or society.

While you are out in public and some random person may snap your photo, that may be expected, but you should also be expected some level of privacy in that the police can’t intrude on your privacy simply because you are in public. Going out for a walk in the park or to the local pizza joint should not constitute an invasive background check without your permission. If I’m not breaking the law, it’s none of anyone’s business, especially law enforcement, why I’m out in public.

Author: Michael Jansen
When it comes to cyber-security & privacy protection, no one is better than our chief editor Michael Jansen. Michael started tinkering with computer networks in the early ’90s with led him to study computer science and network engineering at the university. He was always a privacy protection advocate and decided to start this project with his like-minded friends.