Facial recognition software tested countywide by law enforcement - San Diego, California News Station - KFMB Channel 8 - cbs8.com

Facial recognition software tested countywide by law enforcement

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SAN DIEGO, Calif. (CBS 8) -- More than two dozen San Diego county law enforcement agencies have started testing facial recognition technology used to help identify people in the field.

Currently, the software allows officers to compare any photo of your face to a database of local mug shots. But there are concerns about what may happen next.

Patrol cop Robert Halverson is one of seven officers in the Chula Vista Police Department who carries a tablet computer loaded with the facial recognition software, made by FaceFirst, LLC.

"This only taps into the county booking photos," Officer Halverson said while demonstrating the software to CBS News 8.

"This is just an investigation tool. It's only scanning against that one database to compare faces," he said.

Twenty-five local agencies currently are testing about 180 of the devices, paid for with a Homeland Security grant under a $475,000 annual contract with the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).

The devices and software allow officers to snap a photo of a person in the field and compare that image to mug shots already on file.

"I think a policeman doesn't like it when someone gets away with not being held accountable, like say, they give you a bogus name and you weren't able to catch it," said Officer Halverson.

Right now, the software ties into the county's criminal mug shot database of about 1.4 million images. But privacy advocates says it's only a matter of time before facial recognition technology is taken to the next level.

"Once you have this technology you can use it for other things," said Dave Maass, a technology investigator with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco.

"You can use it to take security camera footage and run an identity check on that. You can grab Facebook images and run an identity check on that," said Maass.

"Let's say the police are videotaping a crowd of protestors. Then can turn around and they can use this facial recognition software to start identifying the people in the crowd," said Maass. "That's problematic. It's problematic for free speech. It's problematic for freedom of association. It's problematic for privacy."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation wants SANDAG to implement strict privacy and usage guidelines before facial recognition software goes mainstream with local police agencies.

"Local law enforcement has this way of taking a technology before it's been regulated and pushing it to the extreme," Maass said.

EFF also is worried that the technology may soon allow police to tap into the state's DMV photo database and use facial recognition to identify people through driver's license photos.

"People are worried about the privacy with the DMV and stuff like that," said CVPD Officer Halverson.

"We're only taking the photo of the person if we have a criminal reason like an arrest or a criminal investigation. It's not just anyone on the street," said Halverson.

SANDAG currently is in the process of developing and updating draft guidelines for the use of facial recognition technology by local law enforcement, according to the agency's Associate General Counsel, Shelby Tucker.

"The changes we are anticipating have to do with making it clear that we are not using the DMV photos. We never have and never plan to use the DMV photos," Tucker wrote in an email to CBS News 8.

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