Police are using sophisticated software to match the faces of criminals being videotaped committing a crime and photographs stored in enormous databases. The software has paid some dividends. This year, Akron, Ohio, police detectives used a facial recognition database to identify a suspect accused of murder. Detectives obtained the suspect’s photograph. The image was run through the database, and Charles Fortson was flagged. After an interview Fortson was arrested.
Facial-recognition technology is a cutting-edge biometric tool increasingly being used by law enforcement authorities across the country and around the world. Though not yet as reliable as DNA or fingerprints, facial recognition can help determine a suspect’s identity through individual variations in irises, skin textures, vein patterns, palm prints and a person’s gait while walking, according to the Washington Post.
Like fingerprints detect lines on your hand, facial recognition detects the lines on your face, and then compares them against a database of photographs. Law enforcement officials use it when they have a photograph of a suspect and need to make an identification.
With the increased use of DNA databases, suspects in some cases were submitting to testing that put their genetic profile in official databases, even if they were never convicted of a crime.
Last year, the Supreme Court approved the collection of DNA samples after arrest. At the time, the federal government and 28 states authorized the collection of DNA from those arrested. According to the New York Times, law enforcement officials argued the DNA samples were a valuable tool for investigating unsolved crimes.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote, “Taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
There are even greater concerns about the pervasive use of facial recognition. Unlike DNA and fingerprints, which are collected after an arrest or conviction, facial recognition systems collect data on law-abiding citizens from driver’s licenses and non-driver ID card databases. This data is collected without individuals knowing it and dumped into a database of millions of images.
According to a 2013 Cincinnati Enquirer investigation, 26 states and the District of Columbia allow law enforcement to use facial recognition systems. Twelve states do not use facial recognition software at all, and another 12 states have facial recognition systems but don’t allow law enforcement personnel to benefit from the technology in any way.
The concern about facial recognition goes beyond warehousing the images of individuals never charged with a crime. The concerns extend to the collection of these images without adequate notice to the public and the potential for abuse of the images by law enforcement and other agencies that have access to the database.
Those concerned were heightened last year in Ohio. The Enquirer investigation revealed that Attorney General Mike DeWine launched a facial recognition software program that tapped into Ohio’s database of driver’s license photographs, without disclosing the program to the public.
After a firestorm of protest, Attorney General DeWine admitted that he should have told the public about the facial recognition system’s 2013 launch. When some complained that liberal access to the data would spawn abuse, he said abuse would be deterred by a felony charge for misusing the technology.
Last year, about 26,500 local law enforcement officials, court workers, and employees from other agencies had access to the software. Access to Ohio’s database was the most liberal in the country.
DeWine formed an advisory group to suggest security protocol changes that would insure proper use of the state’s facial recognition system. As of May 31, 2014, the number of individuals with access to the database had dropped to about 5,100 people — all law enforcement officials, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.