San Diego quietly slips facial recognition into the hands of law enforcers

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Facial recognition image courtesy of ShutterstockThe US immigration agent had a hunch.

So while he was taking part in a warrant sweep in the Oceanside neighborhood of the US city of San Diego, in California, he whipped out his Android smartphone and snapped a quick photo.

He didn't have to ask his subject's name. He didn't need to check the man's identification. And he certainly didn't need a warrant.

The facial recognition software on the mobile phone confirmed the agent's suspicion about the immigration status of a neighbor of the person he was pursuing: the neighbor was in the country illegally and had been convicted in 2003 of driving under the influence in San Diego.

It's easy to see why law enforcement agents rave about this new, mobile facial recognition technology - called the Tactical Identification System (TACIDS) - which has been quietly rolled out in a pilot program in San Diego this year, according to a report published on Thursday by The Center for Investigative Reporting.

Here's what the agent said about the episode in his testimonial for the Automated Regional Justice Information System - a vast data-sharing program that underlies the project, coordinated by the San Diego Association of Governments:

The subject looked inquisitively at me not knowing the truth was only 8 seconds away. I received a match of 99.96 percent. This revealed several prior arrests and convictions and provided me an FBI #. When I showed him his booking photo, his jaw dropped.

Oh, snap. Yes, you can see where the law would eat this right up.

Without this type of facial recognition software, which taps into databases of convicted or other persons of interest, "Uncooperative Persons Are Not Easily Identified, Wanted And Persons Of Interest Evade Detection, and Outstanding Warrants Remain Unexecuted," as outlined in the TACIDS materials.

As Ali Winston writes in the Center for Investigative Reporting story, the facial recognition program was rolled out without any public hearings or notice.

Its secrecy has alarmed privacy experts and raised questions about whether this program is the harbinger of a future that sees government databases cataloguing most people, all in spite of a raging international debate over the US's National Security Agency's (NSA's) and other goverments' surveillance agencies' collecting and sharing mind-boggling amounts of data on the public.

Law enforcement officials told Winston that the facial recognition software has built-in privacy safeguards.

It doesn't retain a central database of people who are stopped by police and questioned, they said.

After an image taken in the field is run through the system, it is discarded by the central database, they said. No database is created of photos of people who are stopped and questioned by police.

The devil's in the details, however.

Winston reports that during field tests with police, images taken in the field were stored within individual tablets that weren't set up to automatically delete photos that don't match a record in a criminal database.

"It’s up to police to delete those photos on their own," Winston writes.

Meanwhile, as officers rave about the precision of facial recognition, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has obtained documents that show that the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI's) facial recognition program failed to identify the right person 1 out of 5 times.

CCTV camerasThat alarming error rate translates into a 20% chance of an innocent person getting misidentified.

This imprecise technology is set to spread across the country like a pestilence.

The program's goal is, in fact, to develop open-source software that "will be made available as part of a repeatable national model," the program proposal states.

Tim Dees, a retired police officer and criminal justice college professor who now writes about technology as it's used in law enforcement and corrections, suggested to me that there's nothing, really, to stop the spread of the technology, at least from a financial or technological standpoint:

These facial recognition systems will get cheaper as time goes on. It's mainly software. The hardware already exists on smartphones and tablets.

As far as civil liberties go, Dee argues that facial recognition actually serves as a safeguard against false arrest based on a similar name, date of birth, government tax number, etc.

The flip side of the coin, Dees said, is if the police start using facial recognition as the sole element of probable cause for a stop:

Your day could be ruined because you looked like a wanted felon.

Still, Dees says, the facial recognitions systems aren't quite as Big Brother as most people think:

The faces are run against local files only, as bad guys don't often stray that far from home. It's not a system like on TV, where the face image from a surveillance cam goes into the software and the good guys have the owner's complete pedigree in seconds. A system that ran nationally would take far too long and come up with too many false positives.

But, as a safeguard for 'Is this Lisa Vaas?' it works fine.

Even if San Diego's pilot program isn't yet hooked into national databases doesn't mean it won't be, eventually.

FaceFirst, a military contractor spinoff and the vendor behind the program, certainly has lofty, federal-level ambitions.

Winston reports:

The $126,800 contract for the San Diego system is the company's first public contract in the United States. … Rosenkrantz would not say whether the company's products are used by federal law enforcement, but the company has had talks with the Pentagon, Border Patrol and Navy.

What do you think? Would you be relieved to have your photo snapped and thereby avoid possible false arrest if police confuse you with a criminal?

Or is there something somewhat criminal about facial recognition being rolled out in this stealthy fashion, without the moderating influence of public debate?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image of facial recognition courtesy of Shutterstock.

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15 Responses to San Diego quietly slips facial recognition into the hands of law enforcers

  1. RichardD · 691 days ago

    Since many police officers (wrongly) assert that it is illegal for members of the public to photograph them at work, they are clearly worried about their privacy.

    Why shouldn't members of the public have the same concerns?

    The only difference is that we won't have a gang of guys in riot gear to intimidate the police into handing over their memory cards.

  2. Chris Austin · 691 days ago

    Excellent development.
    Obviously needs water tight regulation and oversight.

    Here in the UK we rapidly adopted video surveillance in the 1990s and haven't yet become a police state ... because of our parliamentary democracy, investigative journalists and privacy purists.

    But given recent revelations about GCHQ and NSA I feel much less trusting of authorities who clearly haven't understood the capabilities of emerging technology, ... possibly not enough engineers and scientists in key national policy-making roles.

    • Adopted video surveillance in the 1990's, took away guns in 1997.

      Haven't yet become a police state . . .


      Slow cooking in the pot my little frog.

    • Ben · 691 days ago

      Can you not see the similarities between this latest "excellent development" and George Orwell's 1984? If memory serves, Great Britain became the Oceanian province of Airstrip One. One of the major themes in this book was the ever-present government surveillance of its citizens along with an elite ruling party's persecution of individualism and independent thinking. 1984 was fiction. Fast forward to 2013 and we're seeing Orwell's fiction turning into reality. "Excellent development" my arse.

      • Lateral · 691 days ago

        With apologies to Mike Godwin...

        As an online discussion [about surveillance] grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving [1984] approaches 1."


  3. Terry · 691 days ago

    We live in a Western 'liberal' dictatorship, the opposite of a democracy. If we lived in a democracy, this practice would not be established secretly and without any public notification, debate or - and this is the most important thing - vote.

    The people's case versus the dictators rests. There are more of us than them...

  4. Anonymous · 691 days ago

    In most US states you have the right to not answer who you are if asked by the police when stopped and questioned. If a person is just walking around and an Officer thinks they looks suspicious the Officer can perform a stop (usually called a Terry Stop) and pat them down for weapons, etc. However in many states the person has the right to not give their name or ID to the Officer just based on this cursory stop. Taking a photo of the person to ID them now takes away from that persons right to refuse to give a name. So the context and way the facial recognition is used could run afoul of some state laws and my guess is this will eventually end up in court for a ruling at some point down the road....

  5. Andrew · 691 days ago

    it was bound to happen

  6. sobic · 691 days ago

    do i remember correctly, "the eye cannot trespass" ?

  7. jeremy SS · 691 days ago

    As a member of the criminal fraternity was heard to comment, "we cannot wait to get our version of this, just imagine, who would want to become an undercover cop after we start to incorporate every passing-out parade photo of every police officer commissioned, Super and a hacked version would be splendid, it help to identify members of other criminal organisations to further inter-gang harmony"

  8. Anonymous · 690 days ago

    I'm a privacy advocate but I actually don't have a problem with this.

    "The US immigration agent had a hunch."

    He wasn't taking pictures of everybody, he was just following up on a hunch, a sense that something deserved a closer look. If he took my photo, 8 seconds later he would have just walked away and went about his business.
    This is a lot more convenient than the old method of hauling someone down to the police precinct, getting fingerprints and running them through a national database.
    Sure, it's new and it's high tech and it involves photographs but that in itself doesn't make it evil.

    • Fin Alyn · 690 days ago

      We don't let police just barge into a house on a "hunch", they need a warrant. With a 20% failure rate you have NO idea if 8 seconds after he took your picture that he'd walk away. There is a 20% chance you are cuffed and in the back of a police car and having no clue as to the fact that you are an illegal immigrant with a DUI.

      • Buck · 687 days ago

        "So while he was taking part in a warrant sweep in the Oceanside neighborhood of the US city of San Diego"
        The officer had a warrant. Also, there is no indication that the barged into the neighbor's house. He could have been out on the street.

        20% failure rate?
        "I received a match of 99.96 percent. This revealed several prior arrests and convictions and provided me an FBI #. When I showed him his booking photo, his jaw dropped."
        Booking photos don't lie.

  9. Roberto Bean · 690 days ago

    Your all full of it. If you knew how the system really worked instead of reading this stupid articles meant to stir you up, you'd move on. I'm willing to bet you it's got a failure rate of less than 20% and the FBI data is dated and wrong. Algorithms have been enhanced since that report. It's ground breaking, saves lives and officers time. Read up on facial recognition, you need some more information for this article before you start trying to stir people up.

  10. Navitas · 690 days ago

    I don't care if it has 100% accuracy. It is an invasion of privacy. PLain and simple.

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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.