Md. use of fa­cial scans de­cried

ACLU, re­searchers wary of po­lice use of driver’s li­cense photos

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Rec­tor and Alison Kneze­vich

A five-year-old pro­gram in Mary­land that lets po­lice com­pare im­ages of uniden­ti­fied criminal sus­pects with mil­lions of mo­tor ve­hi­cle records us­ing in­creas­ingly ad­vanced fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware has come un­der fire from civil lib­er­ties ad­vo­cates, who say such pro­grams lack trans­parency and in­fringe on privacy rights.

Po­lice have used the Mary­land Im­age Repos­i­tory Sys­tem with lit­tle fan­fare since 2011. But the pro­gram has at­tracted in­creased scru­tiny since the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union in Cal­i­for­nia re­leased doc­u­ments last week show­ing the sys­tem was used to mon­i­tor pro­test­ers dur­ing the unrest and ri­ot­ing in Bal­ti­more last year.

That fol­lowed other re­cent dis­clo­sures about law en­force­ment in Bal­ti­more adopt­ing clan­des­tine tech­nolo­gies, in­clud­ing cell­phone track­ing and aerial sur­veil­lance.

The Cen­ter on Privacy & Tech­nol­ogy at the Ge­orge­town Univer­sity Law Cen­ter plans to re­lease a na­tional study to­day on the use of fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware by law en­force­ment. The cen­ter high­lights Mary­land’s po­si­tion at the cutting edge of the tech­nol­ogy and ques­tions its mer­its.

Mary­land is one of at least five states that have pro­vided ac­cess to driver’s li­censes, lo­cal po­lice mug shots and other cor­rec­tions records to the FBI, ac­cord­ing to state and fed­eral data. A dozen other states pro­vide driver’s li­cense pho­to­graphs only. Still oth­ers have laws pro­hibit­ing the use of

“In the fu­ture, we might see a world where ev­ery face is scanned.” Al­varo Be­doya, Cen­ter on Privacy & Tech­nol­ogy

fa­cial recog­ni­tion.

“With Mary­land, we see one of the more ag­gres­sive de­ploy­ments of fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy,” said Clare Garvie, an as­so­ciate at the Cen­ter on Privacy & Tech­nol­ogy.

Al­varo Be­doya, the cen­ter’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, warned against govern­ment en­croach­ment on privacy.

“We are cross­ing a kind of Ru­bi­con here, where states like Mary­land are cre­at­ing bio­met­ric data­bases of law-abid­ing ci­ti­zens,” he said. “The next step in this progress is the use of real-time fa­cial recog­ni­tion.”

Be­doya said fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware could soon be com­bined with vast sur­veil­lance sys­tems, such as Bal­ti­more’s hundreds of Ci­tiWatch cam­eras, for even more per­va­sive mon­i­tor­ing.

“It wouldn’t take that much for Mary­land or Bal­ti­more to make that kind of in­vest­ment,” he said. “In the fu­ture, we might see a world where ev­ery face is scanned.”

State of­fi­cials have said con­cerns about the pro­gram are overblown and did not shy away from the state’s rep­u­ta­tion for adopt­ing the tech­nol­ogy early.

Stephen T. Moyer, secretary of the state Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety and Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices, which op­er­ates and main­tains the data­base, said his agency and Mary­land law en­force­ment agen­cies will con­tinue to “make use of all le­gally avail­able tech­nol­ogy to ag­gres­sively pur­sue all crim­i­nals.”

“We’re us­ing it ag­gres­sively be­cause we pur­sue crim­i­nals ag­gres­sively,” said Gerard Shields, a depart­ment spokesman. “That’s a pri­or­ity for us.”

The data­base includes more than 7 mil­lion im­ages from the Mary­land Mo­tor Ve­hi­cle Ad­min­is­tra­tion and more than 3 mil­lion mug shots and other pho­to­graphs of ar­restees, of­fi­cials said. Ev­ery night, the MVA sends off more. “The MVA has a long-stand­ing prac­tice of shar­ing photos and data with law en­force­ment. We’re talk­ing decades and decades,” MVA spokesman Chuck Brown said. “Even be­fore dig­i­tal photos were in­vented, we had a sys­tem in place to share photos with law en­force­ment.”

Of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that be­tween 6,000 and 7,000 law en­force­ment of­fi­cers from agen­cies and de­part­ments across the state have ac­cess to the data­base.

The sys­tem al­lows them to scan im­ages of criminal sus­pects from a sur­veil­lance cam­era or a so­cial me­dia ac­count and then com­pare them to the mil­lions of stored pho­to­graphs from the state and tens of mil­lions more from the FBI’s own fed­eral mug shot repos­i­tory.

The di­men­sions of in­di­vid­u­als’ faces — the width of a nose, the shape of an ear — help the soft­ware spit out matches for con­sid­er­a­tion by in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

“The process is only a tool,” Shields said. “It does not meet the stan­dard for ev­i­dence. It is not re­plac­ing in­ves­tiga­tive work that law en­force­ment is do­ing.”

Shields said the state keeps logs of users who ac­cess the sys­tem, but not the re­sults of searches.

“We have never re­ceived a re­port about the sys­tem be­ing abused,” he said.

Kevin Combs, chief in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer for the cor­rec­tions depart­ment, said the data­base ad­heres to all ap­pli­ca­ble laws re­gard­ing the ex­punge­ment of criminal records.

Dur­ing one re­cent week, Mary­land’s sys­tem was ac­cessed 177 times, Shields said.

The Mary­land State Po­lice and po­lice de­part­ments across the Bal­ti­more re­gion — in­clud­ing Anne Arun­del, Bal­ti­more, Car­roll, Howard and Har­ford coun­ties — all con­firmed us­ing it, but few pro­vided de­tails.

Howard County po­lice have used it mostly for rob­bery in­ves­ti­ga­tions, and some­times in theft and fraud cases, a spokes­woman said. The sher­iff’s of­fice in Car­roll County has used it a few times, but it has never re­sulted in a sus­pect be­ing iden­ti­fied, a spokesman there said.

T.J. Smith, a Bal­ti­more po­lice spokesman, said his agency used the soft­ware “when there was ri­ot­ing go­ing on in Bal­ti­more last year for pur­poses of try­ing to iden­tify those who were in­volved in criminal wrong­do­ing.”

Smith de­clined to an­swer other ques­tions about the depart­ment’s use of the tech­nol­ogy, in­clud­ing the claim by the pri­vate com­pany Ge­ofee­dia — ob­tained by the ACLU — that po­lice had used it to iden­tify in­di­vid­u­als with out­stand­ing war­rants dur­ing the unrest.

Civil lib­er­ties ad­vo­cates say the soft­ware can make mis­takes that send po­lice of­fi­cers to the doorsteps of in­no­cent peo­ple.

They also ques­tion whether the pub­lic, in­clud­ing pro­test­ers, are pro­tected against abuses.

“The chilling ef­fects on peo­ple ex­er­cis­ing their First Amend­ment rights seem pretty clear to me,” said David Rocah, a staff at­tor­ney at the ACLU of Mary­land.

In re­cent months, Rocah has crit­i­cized the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment for hav­ing se­cretly used so-called st­ingray tech­nol­ogy, which mim­ics a cell­phone tower and helps pin­point a de­vice’s lo­ca­tion by trig­ger­ing all phones in an area to con­nect to it, as well as a pri­vate sur­veil­lance plane.

Now Rocah says the state and the Bal­ti­more po­lice are not dis­clos­ing enough in­for­ma­tion about the fa­cial recog­ni­tion pro­gram.

“There’s a ques­tion of who is be­ing sub­jected to this kind of fa­cial recog­ni­tion search in the first place,” Rocah said. “Is it only Black Lives Matter demon­stra­tors who get this treat­ment? Are they draw­ing those cir­cles only in cer­tain neigh­bor­hoods? The con­text in which it’s de­scribed here seems quintessen­tially im­proper.”

Be­doya said re­search shows that fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware is less accurate when iden­ti­fy­ing African-Amer­i­can faces, mak­ing it “least accurate for the pop­u­la­tion that the Bal­ti­more po­lice is most likely to use it on.”

State of­fi­cials said they were not aware of such is­sues.

Garvie said Mary­land and other states are build­ing out ap­pli­ca­tions for fa­cial recog­ni­tion with­out suf­fi­cient poli­cies in place to govern how they should func­tion, and are do­ing lit­tle to in­form the pub­lic about the pro­grams.

“We’re see­ing the tech­nol­ogy ad­vance very, very rapidly right now, and as the tech­nol­ogy ad­vances, we’re go­ing to see more and more ag­gres­sive de­ploy­ment,” Garvie said. “We’re not see­ing any pub­lic di­a­logue around this.”

Brown, the MVA spokesman, said his agency has a privacy pol­icy posted on its web­site that re­serves its right to share pri­vate in­for­ma­tion with law en­force­ment. He said the agency would try to dis­play it more promi­nently.

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