The Raleigh Police Department will soon have facial-recognition software that will enable detectives to compare surveillance photos gathered from crime scenes with mug shots of people who have been booked into the Wake County jail.
The department will become the first in the state to use the software, spokeswoman Laura Hourigan said. Starting in November, a handful of detectives will use the system as part of a one-year test program, Hourigan said.
“It basically uses math to look for measurements in the face,” she said. “For example, the eyes, the size of the cheeks, the shape of the nose, and compare it with other photos.”
Giving facial-recognition software to police worries civil liberty advocates, who say it could be abused. They say the technology is new but is about to become widespread.
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“The first thing that’s very concerning is why hasn’t there been more public discussion about the use of this technology,” said Mike Meno, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “There needs to be really strong policies and regulations to make sure the technology does not invade a person’s privacy rights.”
The announcement of Raleigh’s program coincides with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s own facial recognition system, the Next Generation Identification program, which the agency indicated this week is fully operational. The FBI’s system will collect 52 million photos by the end of 2015, with 4.3 million of the images obtained for noncriminal reasons, such as employer background checks, according to the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, an international digital rights group in San Francisco.
In January, the police department submitted a grant proposal to the Governor’s Crime Commission to purchase the software and was awarded $43,650. On Tuesday, the Raleigh City Council gave the department the green light to begin using the software. The council passed the measure unanimously, without discussion.
Facial recognition technology is growing. The Washington Post reported last year that 37 states were using it in their driver’s license registries and at least 26 allow state, local or federal law enforcement agencies to use it to search – or request searches – of photo databases in an attempt to learn the identities of people who may be relevant to criminal investigations.
Hourigan was not sure whether a photographic match made using the software would be admissible as evidence in court. She said during the test period, the software will be used by the detectives as an investigative tool that will give them “more information.”
“The detectives will still do follow-up work and follow leads,” she said. “The software is a stepping stone.”
Hourigan said the software will use three facial recognition programs. However, the city is still in “a contractual process” and the names of the software manufacturers were not available.
During the first year, Hourigan said, detectives will examine only Wake County arrest photos over the past seven years. She said investigators will not consult more prominent criminal databases, such as the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.
Dave Maass, an investigative researcher with the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, is skeptical that use of the software will be that limited for long.
“It’s easy to start with mug shots, but what’s to stop the police from looking at department of motor vehicle photos, government employees or teacher databases?” Maass said. “Once you have the technology, it’s very tempting to start using it for other things. There needs to be strict definitions of privacy and limits on the number of people who can access the information.”
Meno of the ACLU echoed Maass’ concerns. He said the state government in Ohio secretly used facial recognition software to compare photos on the department of motor vehicles database with mug shots and images of criminal suspects.
“There were thousands of searches of the DMV database,” Meno said, “and the public did not even know they were using this technology.”
Hourigan said the Raleigh Police Department has drafted policies that will regulate use of the software, but it’s still under review and not ready to be made public.