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Monday, June 17, 2013

Law enforcement accesses increasingly massive facial recognition databases with few legal standards

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Madison Ruppert

According to a new report, the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance program isn’t all Americans have to be concerned about. Searchable facial recognition databases are growing increasingly massive and few legal safeguards are in place.

Facial recognition systems in the United States are on the rise thanks to a wide variety of initiatives including the FBI directly sharing facial recognition software with police departments while also deploying a $1 billion facial recognition system around the country.

Since facial recognition systems are now capable of scanning 36 million faces per second and can be deployed on platforms ranging from drones to mannequins to border crossings and more, some have developed anti-facial recognition measures.

Over 120 million people have already been placed in these photo databases which are used by law enforcement to identify suspects, accomplices and innocent bystanders despite the fact that they were originally billed as an attempt to prevent driver’s license fraud, according to the Washington Post.

While most probably would not object to facial recognition technology helping police find murderers, bank robbers and other criminals, the use extends far beyond that.

In the past, police have tracked down suspects who have their images captured by surveillance cameras or on social media by comparing images with official photo databases.

Yet current law enforcement use of facial searches has blurred the traditional boundary between criminal databases comprised of mugshots and the like and non-criminal databases.

When non-criminal databases are searched, it essentially puts “images of people never arrested in what amount to perpetual digital lineups,” the Post reports.

As I have reported previously, some of the systems – indeed, a growing number – give access to the FBI and other federal authorities and police can freely search the databases from the computers in their patrol cars.

“Such open access has caused a backlash in some of the few states where there has been a public debate,” the Post reports.

“Where is government going to go with that years from now?” asked Louisiana State Representative Brett Geymann, a Republican who has worked against the creation of cross-jurisdictional facial recognition systems in his state.

“Here your driver’s license essentially becomes a national ID card,” Geymann said.

As the Post rightly points out, facial recognition is just one of the many biometric identification methods including monitoring a person’s gaitirises, skin textures, vocal patternsremote biometricsand more, many of which can be captured without the subject’s knowledge.

The Supreme Court’s approval of warrantless DNA collection after arrests is important as well since it means even more data is being placed in centralized databases even when the suspect is never convicted.

Facial recognition systems may be one of the most troubling because they “are more pervasive and can be deployed remotely, without subjects knowing that their faces have been captured. Today’s driver’s-license databases, which also include millions of images of people who get non-driver ID cards to open bank accounts or board airplanes, typically were made available for police searches with little public notice,” the Post reports.
According to a review conducted by the Post, at least 37 states use facial recognition technology in their driver’s license registries.

At least 26 of those allow state, local or federal law enforcement agencies to search or request searches of photo databases as long as it is an attempt to learn the identity of someone believed to be relevant to an investigation.

“This is a tool to benefit law enforcement, not to violate your privacy rights,” Scott McCallum said. McCallum is the head of the Pinellas County, Florida facial recognition unit which has built one of the country’s most advanced systems.

While current technology doesn’t provide law enforcement with definitive identifications, only investigative leads, research is aimed at raising the standard considerably.

Research is “focused on pushing the software to the point where it can reliably produce the names of people in the time it takes them to walk by a video camera,” according to the Post.

This has already been achieved in well-lit, controlled settings with relatively small databases of potential matches and these limitations are expected to be overcome in just a few years, according to experts.

“As a society, do we want to have total surveillance? Do we want to give the government the ability to identify individuals wherever they are … without any immediate probable cause?” asked Georgetown University law professor Laura Donohue, according to the Post.

“A police state is exactly what this turns into if everybody who drives has to lodge their information with the police,” said Donohue, who has studied government facial databases.

The Washington Post’s in-depth article is definitely worth checking out for one perspective on this growing trend.

With surveillance cameras becoming increasingly common and powerful, privacy treated with less respect and boundaries between various government agencies becoming nearly non-existent, the future looks increasingly unbelievable.

I’d love to hear your opinion, take a look at your story tips and even your original writing if you would like to get it published. I am also available for interviews on radio, television or any other format. Please email me at

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This article first appeared at End the Lie.

Madison Ruppert is the Editor and Owner-Operator of the alternative news and analysis database End The Lie and has no affiliation with any NGO, political party, economic school, or other organization/cause. He is available for podcast and radio interviews. Madison also now has his own radio show on UCYTV Monday nights 7 PM - 9 PM PT/10 PM - 12 AM ET. Show page link here:http://UCY.TV/EndtheLie. If you have questions, comments, or corrections feel free to contact him at

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