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Local police agencies expand use of facial recognition devices

Local police agencies are expanding the use of facial recognition cameras to identify suspects in the field.

SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - Local police agencies are expanding the use of facial recognition cameras to identify suspects in the field.

More than twice as many devices have been deployed compared to a year ago and privacy advocates worry about what may be coming next.

Two years ago, local police agencies started testing facial recognition in the field.

Today, the number of devices with facial recognition software has increased from less than 200 last year to 418 currently in use across the county.

Officers use mobile devices to take photos of suspects then the facial recognition software compares the photos against a countywide mug shot database.

“If you have not been arrested and booked into jail in San Diego, then you won't be in the system, ever. We don't add new pictures that we take in the field. It's just existing jail booking photos,” said SDPD Lt. Scott Wahl.

The local mug shot database currently includes more than 400,000 people. That number increases every time someone gets booked into jail, whether or not they are ultimately convicted of a crime.

“Just because you have been arrested once doesn't mean you lose your right to privacy,” said Dave Maass, an investigative researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

He recently uncovered records showing taxpayers have paid more than $540,000 to fund facial recognition in San Diego County since the program’s inception.

“The thing that I worry about is facial recognition becomes like automatic license plate readers and everywhere you go there are cameras that are able to track where you're moving because they're able to identify your face,” said Maass.

In order for that to happen, facial recognition would need to expand to larger, public databases like DMV photos or pictures posted on Facebook. So far, that hasn't happened but new technology is emerging.

“Some of the other technologies to look out for are iris scanning and we've also seen the Department of Homeland Security develop a tattoo recognition app,” said Maass.

Officers defend the technology by saying facial recognition cameras are helping them in the field to identify wanted suspects.

“I think a policeman doesn't like it when somebody gets away with not being held accountable, like say, they give you a bogus name and you weren't able to catch it,” said Chula Vista Police Officer Robert Halverson in an earlier interview.

By policy, San Diego police officers can only use facial recognition if the suspect has been detained as part of a criminal investigation; or if the officer suspects the person is using a face identification.

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