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Surveillance State Tactics Increasing: Police Starting to Use Facial Recognition Devices

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An article in the Wall Street Journal discusses a disturbing new trend: that of local police forces starting to use hand held face recognition devices. The implements allow for a picture taken at up to a five foot distance to be compared to images of individuals with a criminal record. They can also take fingerprints.

The story focuses on the civil liberties aspects, which are troubling enough and we’ll turn to them shortly. But I’d like to discuss the technology. I worked a bit with a company that had a terrific algorithm for face recognition, and they’d be the first to tell you it was far from foolproof. Even though, in extremely large databases of images, it could find matches of an individual’s photo, it would also generate quite a few false positives. False positives and sloppy or overly aggressive cops means at best an erroneous arrest (and capture of your vital information in the police database; even though that is not supposedly happening, don’t kid yourself that this is the way this is headed) and could conceivably produce more dire outcomes.

The story also describes considerable variation in police attitudes towards these tools. In Arizona, which requires everyone to carry a photo ID (!), the cops are pretty enthusiastic:
ome 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 officers are cautious:

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 story points out that what type of searches are “unreasonable” has not been addressed in court as far as biometric information capture by police is concerned. But I’m a bit disturbed that the article ends with this quote:

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.’”

It’s NOT “just a picture” if it involves special technology that captures biometric detail and can only be obtained at fairly close range. But I doubt the courts will come down this way, meaning that that attitudes like that of Sheriff McDonald will soon go the way of the dodo bird.

Unfortunately, most citizens have been acculturated to handing over information casually, prizing convenience over personal security. I had one friend who refused to do business online because he was unwilling to give his address and personal details to any third party (he did business in nasty third world countries, and I think he had some people who were less than happy with him, so some of his paranoia might have been well founded. I know we can’t turn the clock back, but I am saddened to see how these powerful technologies are being deployed, because they are certain to be abused.

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39 comments

  1. IF

    Doesn’t seem to be too different from ALPRs:
    http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/news/police_and_fire/x1498054455/License-plate-readers-help-police-scan-30-plates-a-second

    To think that the East German government had to organize 1 percent of the population to spy on their neighbors – how quaint! Technology here really is improving productivity. If this remotely follows Moore’s law we should be able to predict the arrival of a reorganized society with high precision.

  2. Kevin Smith

    It’s “just a picture” … unless you are trying to take a picture of a cop.

    Then, you could get yourself arrested.

    Cops often react aggressively to being photographed or videoed.

  3. NYT

    Just wait till News International start paying off people in Apple, Facebook etc for your info.
    They’ll know a lot more about you than your voicemails.

  4. ambrit

    Maam;
    “Who will watch thw watchers” is becoming our new social motto.
    As for, “Most people will say, ‘I don’t have anything to hide, go ahead.’” It reminds me of a wonderful bit of dialogue from “The Maltese Falcon,” where dectective Sam Spade is given just that ‘innocent person’ arguement by the DA. Spade replys, “Everyone has something to hide.” Nowadays, with so many things criminalized, most people are desperate miscreants without even knowing it. That’s the real threat, a true Police State system where ‘innocent persons’ can be demonized at the whim of some ‘official.’It was just such a situation that lead the American Founding Fathers to embody the theory of Privacy and Personal Integrity in the Constitution. They weren’t fools.

  5. bob

    Have you seen some of the tech they have these days?

    The softball sized “cameras” on cop cars now are able to capture and run up to 60 plates a minute(may be dated).

    They can literally park a car on a busy road and fish. Everyone who drives by (with visible plates) is logged and their “papers” are checked.

  6. Valissa

    If you pay attention to the popular movies and TV shows, it is totally normal and accepted practice to use surveillance of all sorts as part of the plot line (inclusing braeking the law for “good reasons”). I assume most of the public thinks the surveillance technology is actually better than it is due to how prevalent it is on TV. IMO this is why the Patriot Act didn’t get more blow back from the general public. The public assumes it’s happening already anyway.

    In addition, I have read articles that talk about the “CSI effect” in courtrooms where the jurors have high unrealistically high expectations of the forensic evidence due to what they’ve seen on TV and in the movies.

  7. Aleealee

    Minority Report, anyone? To counter that we’ll have folks making ready-to-go fake faces like in MIII, developed, of course, by spy agencies who won’t want their agents id’ed.

    Next thing you know, we’ll be at war with Eurasia…for years.

  8. indio007

    Most people don’t even care if they are arrested falsely. People have been cowed to accept all types of indignities.

  9. Roman Legions

    I wonder if funding can be provided for a new and improved Justice system – a system that “scans” cops, bankers, senators, congressmen, judges to determine whether they’ve engaged in police brutality, political repression, bribery, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, patronage, graft, and embezzlement. Additional techniques and methods to detect mortgage fraud, control fraud, criminal enterprises, kick backs, drug trafficking, money laundering, human trafficking, crimes against humanity, torture, killing innocent civilians and brutalizing the poor.

  10. Fraud Guy

    I wonder whether, in the course of applying for a passport renewal, savvy people are already doing some photoshop alteration of the new passport photo that (how quaintly trusting!) the Feds still require us to provide. Move the eyes a little closer together, widen the nostrils a hair, lengthen the chin a bit. It seems to me that one could alter the photo so that the geometric ratios are thrown off which, as I understand it, the recognition software keys on–yet do it in a way that is undetectable to the naked eye.

    I predict that this vulnerability will lead the State Department to soon dispense with requiring citizens to provide their own passport photos. Instead, you’ll have to go to the passport office to have it taken (and pay a hefty fee).

  11. mezcal

    Along a similar line, the cops put up a few video cameras over the hill from me in Vallejo a while back.

    Not only are the sheep NOT strenuously objecting to this but many are actively cheering it on.
    Perhaps they’ll ‘get it’ when they are personally hauled in for passing out anti-Brown/anti-Whitman flyers or whatever.
    But I won’t hold my breath.

    A goodly percentage of these morons will quite happily load themselves in the cattle car when that time comes as long as it’s the right person on the teevee telling them to.
    Oh well, the herd is overdue for a serious culling anyway.

    http://www.timesheraldonline.com/ci_18427222

  12. Mary

    I remember when the first Gulf War started…some of us went down the Federal Building to protest, though it was a done deal (Bush One). There were police video-taping the faces of the one hundred or so protesters. This was almost 20 years ago. Early facial recognition efforts.

    I recall seeing Steven Spielberg waxing on during the launch of MInority Report, about all these new technologies they were privvy to (he and Tom Cruise) that IBM was working on. The roll out being that they worked on a 50 year timeline. That’s enough time to slowly warm up the frog’s pot, don’t you think?

  13. Mary

    This is how every bit of technology application starts ~ warmly embraced with all the “cool” and “beneficial” aspects it can provide. There was a comment above about morality.

    ““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.””

    When has MORALITY EVER WON OUT? The bomb was to be used responsibly, yada yada. Man cannot be trusted to exercise morality, because it’s a shape shifting relativistic concept, and our society is further and further away from true morality in so many respects and getting worse. We should face it, there’s almost nothing the planet or it’s executive supervisors has managed to get right. There is nothing NOTHING that can’t be bought or sold. That includes YOUR FREEDOM.

    My question is, why are some people scratching their heads and express doubt. The people taken off to Auschwitz I’m sure were hoping for the best – that the outcome wouldn’t last forever. There are always sick, conforming people who will carry out atrocities.

    I’d say it’s time to stand up now and stop expressing doubt. How about time to stop it and resist.

    1. rps

      Fairly simple to change the insanity……women are the engine of consumerism. Stop discretionary shopping and refuse to enter businesses with aggressive “customers are potential criminals” policies.

  14. hondje

    Interestingly, Walmart utilizes facial and gait recognition in their surveillance systems for both loss prevention and shopper analysis, so all of us that have gone to walmart sometime in the last couple years are all ‘in the system’ so to speak.

  15. rps

    “but I am saddened to see how these powerful technologies are being deployed, because they are certain to be abused.”

    Paranoia, aggression, violence, destruction, and oppression are the primary features of patriarchal dominant societies.

    1. Joe

      1950s America was patriarchal. We’re living in a matriarchy.
      It’s funny how the closer we move to a matriarchal society the more Paranoid (pedophilia scare, elevator rapist) and oppressive (cultural marxism, Lest ye offend someone) our society becomes. I blame the white man.

  16. Billions for me, None for you

    Facial recognition is just the beginning. Soon there will be facial analysis which will detect thought crime. The aim is to catch criminals before they commit a crime. You have nothing to worry about if you’ve never thought about crime. And why would you think about crime if you were not a hardened criminal?

    As for people who think there might be false positives with this new technology, there will MBSTPU or mobile brain scan thought policing units which will confirm whether someone is a precriminal.

    And it certainly wouldn’t be used to punish dissidents, whistleblowers, brown skinned people, or the poor. The police are professionals and exert their authority judiciously and fairly. Besides it just so happens that those groups contain a disproportionate number of precriminals so it’s natural that those groups will be the ones most scanned.

  17. Sundog

    I think the role of such surveillance technologies in America’s Iraq adventure is under-appreciated.

    Just as it’s often remarked that organized crime groups in Mexico would not disappear if all illicit drugs became freely available tomorrow (and that they are diversifying into activities such as extortion, kidnapping, petroleum theft, illegal logging, and trafficking humans and counterfeit merchandise), US firms which got juicy DoD contracts to develop and supply surveillance technologies in Iraq and Afghanistan won’t just fold up and blow away once these wars are wound down.

    My expectation is that Mexico will increasingly play a role that Israel has for many years, as a laboratory for security technologies. Here are two news reports which illustrate what I mean.

    Biometrics R&D firm Global Rainmakers Inc. (GRI) announced today that it is rolling out its iris scanning technology to create what it calls “the most secure city in the world.” In a partnership with Leon — one of the largest cities in Mexico, with a population of more than a million — GRI will fill the city with eye-scanners. That will help law enforcement revolutionize the way we live — not to mention marketers.

    Austin Carr, “Iris Scanners Create the Most Secure City in the World. Welcome, Big Brother”(Aug 18, 2010)
    http://www.fastcompany.com/1683302/iris-scanners-create-the-most-secure-city-in-the-world-welcomes-big-brother

    The Mexican state of Nuevo Leon plans to call for bids early next year on a 1 billion-peso ($81 million) project to build housing exclusively for police in what would be Mexico’s first police city…. public-private partnership…. “It’s a way of keeping them protected….” [Will support staffing at these FOBs be third-country nationals as in Afghanistan and Iraq? No doubt Chinese SOEs will see tremendous loss-leader potential.]

    Thomas Black, “Mexico’s Nuevo Leon State to Build 1 Billion-Peso Police City”
    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-11-02/mexico-s-nuevo-leon-state-to-build-1-billion-peso-police-city.html

    1. Mary

      “My expectation is that Mexico will increasingly play a role that Israel has for many years, as a laboratory for security technologies”

      A GARDENER (originally from Central America) relayed a story about life back home. RE: “surveillance” drones, he told me of peasant people who were found dead ~ (zapped by a drone?) with the outside of the person intact, but the insides like jelly. He theorized that there was some testing being done to see if people could be (immobilized? killed?) without looking blown apart. He spoke in a very matter of fact manner as if this was not uncommon knowledge.

      Gotta love those surgical strike drones.

    2. Cedric Regula

      Just got a mass e-mail mailing from the Nogales, MX assoc of doctors and dentists.

      They are informing us that the 300 Federales have left town and are no longer endlessly driving the streets in their troop carriers and holding machine guns.

      The city has replaced them with a local police force, Tourist Police (whatever that is), and 14 surveillance camera systems on the city streets in the business/tourist zona. I’m sure these are capable of spotting gringos right up until nightfall, then we are on our own.

      But the Association says all is safe now and we are welcome to come visit for our medical, dental and drug needs. And do a little shopping and restauranting to make the trip even more worthwhile.

      Personally, if I was them I would have mentioned the $5 haircuts too.

  18. Dan Duncan

    Leftist Progressives decrying an over-intrusive government. Beautiful.

    Libertarians in the making.

    1. Ethax

      “[right-wing]libertarians in the making” probably wouldn’t mention the fact that private businesses use/promote this technology

    2. Dan Duncan's dick

      Yesterday I was at the whore house. They let me be myself there, but the mouth attached to the other head had to pay more for the dirty talk.

  19. EoH

    Thank you for the observation that the digital data collected by these and other devices is not “just a picture.” The police are not using an old Kodak brownie camera to take snapshots for their desks or wallets. They are collecting uniquely personal biometric data on individuals about whom they have no reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. That data will be retained essentially forever in government databases, with no restriction on its use. There is no reason to believe that reasonable efforts are taken to verify the data’s accuracy, let alone to discard data not immediately relevant to a criminal investigation.

    This is a new toy. Almost certainly, its acquisition is federally funded. The databases into which this data will be put may be local, but the data will be shared with state and federal authorities, not least with so-called fusion centers – themselves the domestication of international spying methods, standards and personnel.

    What role will our legion of outsourced s/w, h/w and “analysis” contractors play in the collection, storage, analysis and commercialization of these growing databases of unique, personal, private information?

    At least as important is the issue that the growing use of these new, federally-funded toys will further lower our “reasonable expectations of privacy”. Just what the government ordered.

  20. Joe in Missouri

    “(In Arizona, police can arrest people not carrying valid photo ID.)”

    Unfreaking unbelieveable has the peoples state of California bled over the border?

  21. SH

    America is big and this ensures a two tier system of land owners and others that don’t own land. Only those that rent and live in cities will be watched. You would think progress would lead to a system that works the other way.

  22. Mark Pontin

    Beyond face recognition, they’ve automated Paul Ekman’s FACS facial expression recognition system and it’s due to roll out in airports this year, when last I checked.

    Here’s the research and lab involved. The project is called the Computer Expression Recognition Toolbox (CERT) –
    http://mplab.ucsd.edu/grants/project1/research/Fully-Auto-FACS-Coding.html

    Here’s a report from TECHNOLOGY REVIEW in 2009, when CERT was nearing the end of initial development, mostly behind a paywall –
    http://www.technologyreview.com/communications/22480/

    Here’s the same TECH REVIEW article on CERT in full on someone else’s website –
    http://tech.dir.groups.yahoo.com/group/evolutionary-psychology/message/87042?var=1

    Here’s a description of Paul Ekman’s work by Malcolm Gladwell in the NEW YORKER in 2002 –
    http://www.gladwell.com/2002/2002_08_05_a_face.htm

    Eckman’s work is basically on the level (despite being the basis for the very exaggerated TV series LIE TO ME) and in the hands of trained human users has a 85-95 percent success rate. That’s not enough for legally binding purposes and so Eckman refuses to allow evidence derived from his technique to be used in court.

    Nevertheless, the CERT machines were batting about a 90 percent success rate in 2009 and that’s plenty enough for, say, TSA officers to use information so derived in combination with other information to take another look at someone who might be a bomb-carrier on a plane, etcetera.

    Long term, I’d say this technology could have a future in business where, say, one party would run video footage of a business meeting through the CERT technology software to see if the involuntary facial expressions of the representative of the opposite party revealed that they were lying or being honest at crucial points of a business discussion. You could also use the software on public footage of politicans to tell when they were being dishonest or not.

    Botox does work against the system and hide these facial tells, or microexpressions, that Eckman cataloged. So one can imagine a future where, if the CERT technology became fairly established, politicians and corporative executives would routinely use botox treatments to hinder it.

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