By Ali Winston, The Center for Investigative Reporting
Police Officer Rob Halverson responds to a call for help with a parole check. When he arrives, he finds officers leading a young woman out of a house in handcuffs. Police say they have found narcotics in the house, a violation of her parole.
Halverson pulls out a Samsung tablet and asks the woman to face him. He takes her picture. In the past, to verify her identity, Halverson would have had to drive her to the police station, take her picture, and run it through a San Diego County database.
But now, the facial recognition software on Halverson’s tablet allows him to verify the woman’s identity as he stands on her front lawn.
“So I look at her booking photos, and that’s her,” said Halverson, pointing at the tablet. “So I’m able to verify that she’s the right person.”
The software on Halverson’s tablet is made by FaceFirst, a Camarillo-based company. In an interview, CEO Joe Rosenkrantz said his firm uses an algorithm to analyze facial images by comparing the distance between key points on a person’s face, like from chin to ear or between the eyes. He said the error rate is minimal – he claims it’s less than 1 percent of images scanned – and law-abiding people shouldn’t feel threatened by the technology.
“If you are not in a database or somebody who’s legitimately being sought out, whether it’s a criminal database or some type of watch list, you really have nothing to worry about,” Rosenkrantz said.
Facial recognition is only part of a wider technological shift in policing.
Law enforcement agencies around the state are creating databases of information gathered from license-plate readers, which are mounted on police cars or fixed objects and use high-resolution cameras to take pictures of vehicles. Police say license-plate databases help them track criminals and identify stolen cars.
Law Enforcement Data Collection Leads to Privacy Concerns
For many, the rapid changes in law enforcement technology – and the huge amount of data now collected and stored by local police, private companies and governments – raise troubling questions. Peter Biebring, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the devices let police gather data about the personal lives of law-abiding citizens.
“Not just obviously where they live and work, but if they go to a psychiatrist, if they go to AA meetings, if they go to political meetings – potentially, if they have a mistress or any manner of details about their personal life,” Bibring said.
California law has no strict limits for how long police can keep such data. There also are few regulations governing the use of so-called stingray devices, which mimic cellphone towers and allow police to gather information from all wireless devices in the area. Police in San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego and Los Angeles have purchased such equipment, documents show.
Privacy advocates say they are concerned not just about individual rights, but also about what happens when police are able to mine data from all these technologies.
“The concern that technology developed for war and for foreign intelligence is being deployed in local communities – I think that’s something that should give us pause and is reason to scrutinize these technologies closely and ask if the technologies are really compatible with the kind of society we want to live in,” Bibring said.
Convergence of Surveillance Technologies
The latest trend in policing is to merge all of these technologies into one location where police can monitor and analyze the data using sophisticated software. Oakland’s proposed Domain Awareness Center was scaled back in March after sustained protests. The Los Angeles Police Department has been running a similar center since 2009 called the Real-Time Analysis and Critical Response Division.
At the facility, police watch data from camera feeds, license-plate readers, crime reports and GPS ankle monitors worn by paroled sex offenders and gang members. The center also has access to the regional license-plate database.
“We’re constantly trying to keep a pulse on the city,” said Capt. John Romero, who runs the division. He describes it as a digital command post that enhances the department’s “ready war-making capability” – or how they deploy officers.
Ana Muniz, a researcher with the Youth Justice Coalition in Inglewood, said the use of technology and tactics once reserved for the military has migrated from gang policing to entire police departments.
“People who haven’t normally been targeted for surveillance are now starting to experience some portion of what poor communities of color have been experiencing their whole lives,” Muniz said.
Law enforcement officials say that in a technology-centric world, they need to collect and monitor far more information than before.
Mike Sena, director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, said such technologies need strict guidelines – and the public’s trust. Sena’s operation is one of the 78 fusion centers that were set up around the country after 9/11. While the center doesn’t monitor cameras, it maintains a database of license-plate reader information and coordinates the use of stingrays by local police.
“If we don’t have the trust of the public in what we do – information-sharing and intelligence – then we can’t do information-sharing and intelligence,” Sena said. “The Constitution is in place for a reason, and the Bill of Rights is in place for a reason.”
Sena has his own concerns with the privacy challenges brought about by technological advances.
“Nobody wants an Orwellian society where people are under constant surveillance,” he said. “I still have issues with – and many people do – with the fact that privacy has kind of been redefined in the last decade.”
This story was produced by the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, the country’s largest investigative reporting team, in collaboration with KQED. For more, visit cironline.org.