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.