Facial recognition software leads to arrest after 14-year manhunt

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Neil Stammer image from FBI Wanted posterA US child sex abuse suspect hiding out in Nepal who was on the run for 14 years has been caught using facial recognition technology.

According to a statement posted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on Tuesday, Neil Stammer, 48, of New Mexico, was caught hiding under the alias "Kevin Hodges" after a photo from 1999 was circulated on a reissued wanted poster in January.

The FBI described Stammer as a talented juggler with an international reputation.

That made him tough to catch, the FBI says, given that Stammer has traveled extensively, has worked as a street performer in Europe, speaks or reads a dozen languages, and thus could have been "anywhere in the world".

Stammer started out in the US state of New Mexico, where he owned a magic shop.

He was arrested in 1999 on multiple state charges, including child sex abuse and kidnapping. He was released on bond but never showed up for his arraignment.

That led to New Mexico filing a federal fugitive charge on Stammer, who was then 32 years old. That's when the FBI got involved.

The case went cold until January 2014, when FBI Special Agent Russ Wilson was assigned the job of fugitive coordinator in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Wilson created a new wanted poster for Stammer and posted it onto FBI.gov in hopes of generating tips.

A special agent with the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) - a branch of the US Department of State whose mission includes protecting US Embassies and maintaining the integrity of US visa and passport travel documents - was testing new facial recognition software designed to uncover passport fraud when he decided, "on a whim", to use the software on FBI wanted posters.

A match showed up between Stammer’s wanted poster and a passport photo issued under a different name.

FBI Wanted poster, Neil Stammer

Suspecting fraud, the DSS agent contacted the FBI. The tip soon led Wilson to Nepal, where Stammer was living under the name Kevin Hodges and regularly visiting the US Embassy there to renew his tourist visa.

FBI agent Wilson said Stammer had been living in Nepal for years, teaching English and other languages to students hoping to gain entrance into the US, and seemed surprised that the law finally caught up to him:

He was very comfortable in Nepal. My impression was that he never thought he would be discovered.

The FBI worked with the Nepalese government to locate and arrest Stammer.

Catching suspected child predators is a positive for facial recognition, but the debate about the increasingly widespread use of this new technology rumbles on - in particular, the absence of rules that would protect privacy.

Senator Al Franken, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, is one of many civil rights advocates who've voiced concern about facial recognition.

As Senator Franken noted in February, there were then no best practices set up for facial recognition use.

Policies are currently being hammered out in the US by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration.

Facebook, Wal-Mart and Apple are in on the rule-making, similar to foxes writing the rules for how to run a hen house.

The lack of best practices certainly hasn't stopped law enforcement from using facial recognition, though.

According to Edward Snowden leakage, the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting millions of images from the web and storing them in a database that can be mined by facial recognition software for identifying surveillance targets.

Local police have been using facial recognition as well.

In November, a story came to light about San Diego quietly slipping facial recognition into the hands of law enforcers, who've been using mobile phones and tablets to snap photos in the field, all without warrants or asking for subjects' permission to run their images against criminal databases.

The program was rolled out without public hearings or notice, and could represent the beginning of a national rollout.

There are good technologies out there that are helping to nail child abusers, such as the use of PhotoDNA to catch abusive images swapped via email, as done recently by both Google and Microsoft.

Is facial recognition such a technology?

I would say that it could be, someday, but not yet.

Not before privacy rights have been taken into the equation, and not before there are privacy rights-respecting guidelines for law enforcement, data brokers, retailers, and anybody else with a vested interest in recognizing our mugs.

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9 Responses to Facial recognition software leads to arrest after 14-year manhunt

  1. Andrew · 77 days ago

    civil liberties disappearing quickly

  2. Anonymous · 77 days ago

    While the technology is different and perhaps easier to use, I'm not sure that its use would differ much from using fingerprints or DNA to identify suspects. Sharp-eyed detectives (and the public) have been using facial recognition for years to catch unsavory characters. Why would putting technology behind this be a big concern? In my view if it gets creeps like Stammer off the street and into the slammer so much the better.

    • Anonymous · 77 days ago

      a) Using technology for facial recognition is faster, more accurate, and pervasive when you consider all the cameras that are deployed for various reasons.

      b) It's not just about catching those that have committed crimes, but about protecting those that have not, yet are suspected to do so by some 3-letter agency.

      c) I fully agree that the government should have their official, and fully legal (not NSA-like data mines), databases linked together, so that what happened in the article would have happened far sooner.

  3. jandoggen · 77 days ago

    It's all very nice that the FBI is publishing this information, but it's skewing the public's perception of face recognition to the extent that it's almost a lie. I would very much appreciate if we also got the reports of all false positives and their consequences (to the persons affected).

  4. anonymous · 77 days ago

    Today a pedophile, tomorrow a political activist.

  5. scott · 77 days ago

    I think is a slippery slope, this particular case is probably more "reasonable" than taking photos from the web or from cameras anonymously. By more reasonable I mean there is an expectation that a state ID photo might be used for identification. Even this case there still needs to be rules and laws about how the data can be used. Most importantly there needs to be ways for the innocent to protect themselves.

  6. maggotification · 77 days ago

    First, let's make some assumptions. Let's assume that the facial recognition is as accurate as a DNA sample, and makes no false positives. Secondly, let's assume that almost the whole population of the US has a state ID of some kind (passport/visa/driver's license/etc).

    Doesn't this scenario remind anyone of the "DNA Database" that has been argued for and against for so many years?

    I'm not against this kind of testing in principle, but it urgently needs privacy laws to protect from misuse. I'm a little scared that the agent did this "on a whim".

    • Mang · 73 days ago

      That would actually make it more accurate than DNA sampling. I can't remember the exact figures, but there is a very slight chance of duplicate matching. The analysis is not performed on the DNA strand in it's entirety, but rather relies on mashing it up and seeing which pieces fall out.

      The more important point, a database of faces, while invasive, is not as invasive as a DNA database. The DNA store could allow unlawful identification of very sensitive information, such as medical conditions, and could be used against individuals if say a life insurance company had access to the information. "No, you need to pay an extra £/$500 a year because you have this genome that might never even activate."

      In my opinion, a facial recognition database is *probably* a good thing, so long as it is kept up to data/information is deleted promptly according to current data handling laws (which won't happen), the information is securely stored (which won't happen- at least not well enough) and the use of the information has watertight, and ethical law behind it. Which definitely will not happen.

  7. RickB · 50 days ago

    If you have nothing to hide ... you have nothing to worry about

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.