Earlier this year, 133 Galaxy tablets and smartphones were distributed to 25 law enforcement agencies in the San Diego region as part of a pilot program. Their purpose: to allow San Diego law enforcement officials to make use of mobile facial recognition technology in daily operations. Facial images captured by the mobile devices are run through the Tactical Identification System, a new mobile facial recognition technology that matches images officers take in the field with images from databases containing approximately 348,000 San Diego County arrestees and over 1.4 million booking photos. The Tactical Identification System, which pulls mugshots from the statewide Cal-Photo law enforcement database and also has access to 32 million driver’s license photos, is coordinated by the San Diego Association of Governments and counts over 25 federal, state and local agencies among its participants.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and San Diego Police Department, which received a combined 91 of the 133 total mobile devices, together have made nearly 2,000 queries into the system since the pilot program was launched at the beginning of the year. Officers have stated that the Tactical Identification System’s facial recognition capabilities have proven useful in identifying people who refuse to provide their names or make use of false identification. The technology has also been cited as valuable in identifying immigrants who don’t have authorization to be in the United States.
This pilot program, which relies on technology developed for military use, has largely avoided the public spotlight, most likely due to the fact that the technology was deployed in the field without notice or public hearings. Despite that fact, privacy concerns have still been raised regarding the program and the potential erosion of privacy its expansion could result in. The former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties, Kevin Keenan, has expressed concerns about the “monitoring of everyone’s action…” and “storage in perpetuity.” The ACLU has been voicing concerns about facial recognition technology for over a decade, identifying the technology’s potential inaccuracies and susceptibility to abuse as serious issues.
Proponents of the program have countered by pointing out that the facial recognition software has built-in privacy safeguards. Specifically, after field images are run through the system they are deleted by the central database (but the images do remain on the mobile devices until they are manually deleted by an officer). Proponents have also highlighted the fact that the system has valuable applications beyond identifying criminal suspects, including identifying unresponsive, injured persons with no identifying documents.
While the legality of the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement has not yet been tested in the courts, such a challenge seems likely if the pilot program succeeds and is expanded throughout the San Diego Sheriff’s Department and San Diego Police Department. When the courts decision will be of great importance not only to the citizens of San Diego and San Diego law enforcement, but also to the multibillion dollar biometrics industry. Over 70% of the purchases in the biometrics market, which is expected to grow to $9.37 billion by 2014, are made by law enforcement, the military, and other branches of government.
Facial recognition technology is just beginning to play what could ultimately be a very important role in United States law enforcement. At present, just remember that if a San Diego police officer uses his smartphone to take your picture, there may be a lot more going on than meets the eye.