By Doug Porter
Facial recognition technology developed for battlefield use in Afghanistan and Iraq is getting its first major domestic field test right here in San Diego County. A report by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), based on documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) through a California Public Records Act request, spells out the parameters of this endeavor.
The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) is coordinating a program involving twenty five local state and federal agencies in the region using a vast data sharing program called the Automated Regional Justice Information System. Participants include U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, San Diego State University and the San Diego Unified School District Police.
Utilizing tablet and android cell phone technologies, law enforcement officers are snapping photographs of individuals they encounter and running them through databases that include 32 million driver’s license photos. The system can quickly match images with the 1.4 million arrest mug shots in the San Diego County system.
From the EFF report:
The devices are supposed to be issued to “terrorism liaison” officers, but none of the documentation so far has shown any nexus between TACIDS use and terrorist activities. A chart we received, (to the left) shows that, as of July 2013, there were 133 TACIDS-enabled mobile devices out in the field. While the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department had the most devices (55) and had made the most queries to the system (1,280), it was not the most proportionally active user. That honor went to the San Diego State University PD – the department only had one device (and presumably only one user of that device) but used it to make nearly 200 queries.
CIR obtained more recent numbers that show the program has since expanded by another 45 devices, with a total of 5,629 queries since TACIDS launched. Even the California Department of Insurance and the Del Mar Park Rangers now have mobile facial-recognition devices.
One of the most concerning aspects of the system is that TACIDS allows officers to upload photos to its database right from the field. This means that officers can stop a person on the street, take her picture, and enter that picture in a biometric database based on little or no suspicion.
From the CIR Report:
The software works by capturing a freeze frame of a live video feed, which then focuses on the face and uses the distance between the eyes as a baseline. An algorithm then analyzes unique textures and patterns on the face, cross-referencing the freeze frame at the rate of a million comparisons per second against the police mug-shot database that also has been processed by the software….
…Law enforcement officials said the facial recognition software has built-in privacy safeguards. After an image taken in the field is run through the system, it is discarded by the central database, they said. They say it does not create a database of photos of people who are stopped by police and questioned.
“If you’re not in a criminal database, you have nothing to hide,” [CV PD Officer] Halverson said.
However, during field tests with Chula Vista police, images taken by field officers were stored within individual tablets. It’s up to police to delete those photos on their own.
Officers who have used the system in San Diego rave about its precision in identifying people. But facial recognition technology remains imperfect. Documents obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington nonprofit, show that the FBI’s facial recognition program could fail to identify the right person in 1 out of 5 encounters – potentially ensnaring innocent people in investigations.
The program is most likely legal, given the body of court decisions expanding police powers in recent years. And the policies built in for protecting law biding citizens from abuse are a joke.
Although the draft policy includes some measures intended to protect privacy, these measures do not go far enough. For example, the policy explicitly allows face image collection based on First-Amendment protected activities like an “individual’s political, religious, or social views, associations or activities” as long as that collection is limited to “instances directly related to criminal conduct or activity.” But “criminal conduct or activity” is such a vague concept that it places no effective restrictions on police action. As we’ve seen in the ACLU of Northern California’s case challenging California’s DNA collection law, even peaceful political protests can result in arrest and biometric collection.
Not so long ago, our society would have recoiled from this type of stop and search. As an Arizona Supreme Court justice noted in 1983, “[t]he thought that an American can be compelled to ‘show his papers’ before exercising his right to walk the streets, drive the highways or board the trains is repugnant to American institutions and ideals.” In 1990, the Florida Supreme Court said police questioning based on no individualized suspicion was “foreign to any fair reading of the Constitution” and compared it to “Hitler’s Berlin,” “ Stalin’s Moscow,” and “white supremacist South Africa.” It’s disheartening to think how much has changed in the last 23 years and especially in the years since 9/11.
Because SANDAG is –functionally– an unelected regional government, these facial recognition programs have escaped public scrutiny. Here’s a link to their Board of Directors, which includes iMayor Todd Gloria and County Supervisor Greg Cox, along with top elected officials from virtually every local government in the region.
San Diego City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Supervisor Bill Horn all serve on the SANDAG Public Safety Committee. The information published by SANDAG is in an unsearchable PDF format, so it’s possible they’ve slipped info about this program in somewhere, but I haven’t found it.
(If you feel motivated to write any of your elected representatives and ask them what they’ve been doing to protect your rights with this program, click on the name/links above)
Finally, this quote from the Center for Investigative Reporting story:
Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, expressed alarm at the normalization of military-grade technology in daily police activity. She said she believes the San Diego regional government’s lack of transparency around the facial recognition program is designed to minimize opposition and public debate.
“It becomes accepted and is much harder to push back when an agency has purchased 150 devices and deployed them in the field,” Lynch said.
I understand that the horse is out of the barn here. While there is absolutely no historical precedent for undoing technological intrusions in the name of protecting us from “terrorists”, we can and should urge our elected officials to build in safeguards that protect our constitutional freedoms and insist that justice be served when (not if—it’s gonna happen) law enforcement official abuse their powers.
Personally I’d say abuses should be considered a felony—one that eliminates any prospect of ever getting a pension. That ought to provide some motivation where it counts.
Walmart Protestors Turn Up the Heat
The Los Angeles Times has an account up today about big box retail employees and supported getting arrested for sitting in outside a Walmart location in downtown LA. Fifty four people were busted for alleged failure to disperse after an unlawful assembly was declared
Josh Eidelson at Salon.com is reporting on a new website where employees can anonymously request protests at their store and check out view up coming protests slated for Black Friday, November 29th. An event is apparently being organizing for the Walmart Chula Vista location, where employees are demanding higher wages and a 40 hour work week.
As I’ve reported, OUR Walmart – closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union – has made extensive use of websites and social media both to target Wal-Mart’s brand and to engage and identify potential supporters among the retail giant’s 1.3 million direct U.S. employees. OUR Wal-Mart staff and worker activists created and maintain a web of public and private Facebook pages, including pages devoted to fired workers, LGBT workers and pregnant workers (“Respect the Bump”). Workers monitor Facebook discussion threads and reach out to remote co-workers they hope to win over.
Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!
US Senator Lyndsay Graham and others have seized upon a CBSNews/60 Minutes report about the assault on a CIA facility and killing of the US ambassador in Libya by rebels last year as an excuse to block confirmation hearings for all Obama administration nominees.
Trying to prove administration malfeasance on this subject has become a holy grail for conservatives, some of who believe following the trail could lead to rounds for impeachment.
Now they’ve had a little setback in their quest. From the New York Times:
The correspondent for the disputed “60 Minutes’’ segment about the attack on the United States Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year apologized on the air Friday morning, saying it was a “mistake’’ to put on a security officer whose credibility has since been undermined by his diverging accounts of his actions that night.
The correspondent, Lara Logan, said on “CBS This Morning’’ that the news division was misled by the officer, adding, “We will apologize to our viewers, and we will correct the record on our broadcast on Sunday night.”
The apology followed disclosure by The New York Times on Thursday evening that the security contractor, Dylan Davies, had provided the F.B.I. an account that contradicted a version of events he provided in a recently published book and in an interview with the CBS News program “60 Minutes.”
CBS also failed to report they had a financial link to the publisher of Davies’ book.
On This Day: 1805 – The “Corps of Discovery” reached the Pacific Ocean. The expedition was lead by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. The journey had begun on May 14, 1804, with the goal of exploring the Louisiana Purchase territory. 1956 – After turning down 18,000 names, the Ford Motor Company decided to name their new car the “Edsel,” after Henry Ford’s only son. 2005 – The original “Guitar Hero” game was released in North America.
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