On a residential street in San Diego County, Calif., Chula Vista police had just arrested a young woman for possession of narcotics. Prior to taking her away, Officer Rob Halverson paused in the front yard, held a Samsung Galaxy tablet up to the woman’s face and snapped her photo. Halverson then moved his finger a few times, and then without needing to ask the woman’s name or check her identification, her mug shot from a previous arrest, criminal history, her address and other personal information then appeared on the screen.
Officer Halverson had run the woman’s photograph through the Tactical Identification System, a new facial recognition technology being trialled by San Diego law enforcement. Almost instantly the system matches images taken in the field with the databases of about 348,000 San Diego County arrestees. This system has nearly 1.4 million booking photos because different people have multiple mug shots on record.
The program could become one of the largest expansions of facial recognition technology by U.S. law enforcement agencies. In the midst of an international debate over collecting and sharing huge amounts of data on the general public, this pilot program is putting that metadata to use in the field. The technology was rolled out without any notice or public hearings on the subject. This, in turn, has alarmed privacy experts because of the secrecy of the program and has raised questions about whether San Diego is the leading edge of an alarming future. A future in which people are catalogued in a government databases.
A total of twenty five local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, which include U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Border Patrol, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department are participating in the system. The project is coordinated by the San Diego Association of Governments and relies on a massive data-sharing program called the Automated Regional Justice Information System or A.R.J.I.S.
For a long time, technology that was developed on the battlefield has migrated into domestic policing agencies. Since 9/11, America’s involvement in war, have sped up that process. Facial recognition technology, which is widely used by the military, is the next frontier. “What we’re seeing now is much more surveillance oriented, and it’s in the guise of preventative policing…It’s really this aspiration of prevention and social control through the monitoring of everyone’s every action and storage in perpetuity.” said Kevin Keenan, a former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties.
The program, if successful, could expand beyond the county’s borders. The system’s mug shots are pulled from the state wide Cal-Photo law enforcement database, which also has access to over 32 million driver license photos. According to a report by A.R.J.I.S. the county is looking at using mug shots from state wide parole databases, as well as information from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Law enforcement officials said the facial recognition software has built-in privacy safeguards. After an image is taken in the field, it is run through the system and then it is discarded by the central database. 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,” Officer Halverson said. That having been said, during field tests with Chula Vista police dept. images taken by field officers were stored on individual tablets. The responsibility is up to police officers themselves to delete those photographs.
Officers who have used the system in San Diego, blether about its precision identification software. But facial recognition technology still remains imperfect. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington non profit, has obtained documents which show that the FBI’s facial recognition program could fail to identify the right person in 1 out of 5 encounters! That could potentially ensnare innocent people into investigations which they have no involvement.
Keenan, the former San Diego ACLU official, pointed to the U.S.’ history of political surveillance after World War II and 9/11 as evidence that the rapid proliferation of biometric technology is part of a narrowing net of social control in the US, “We were given a false bargain,” Keenan said. “We were told that this kind of control is to prevent another 9/11, and in fact, it’s going to be used to fight the drug war, to pursue other policies where we would not have bargained away our privacy back at that time if we knew that was the trade off.”