Space & Innovation

The Police Have Your Face on File, But Can They Recognize It?

Accuracy and privacy are at risk as police add drivers' license photos of innocent people to criminal databases.


If you have a driver's license, odds are better than even that your photo is sitting in a police database somewhere. And if you are young, female or black, the facial recognition software that compares your face to a video image may not get a perfect match.

Those are two of the surprising findings of a new study this week that found that 117 million Americans - more than half of all adults - have been quietly added to facial recognition databases held by state and local law enforcement agencies.

All drivers in Maryland and Virginia, for example, have been added into a computer. So, too, have residents of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, Calif. The New York Police Department may soon use these databases to match drivers' licenses to video from close-circuit TV cameras. Police in Florida don't even need probable cause to sift through 22 million drivers' licenses on file in their state.

Checking for identification markers such as fingerprints or DNA against a database of known criminals has been commonplace in police departments. But now law enforcement is casting a wider net.

"Historically, biometric databases have been composed of criminals," said Harrison Rudolph, a fellow at Georgetown University Law Center. "This database is made of innocent people."

Rudolph and colleagues at the Center on Privacy and Technology spent a year collecting information from police agencies across the country using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In their study "The Perpetual Lineup," they found that police use of facial recognition systems is more pervasive, more advanced and less controlled than many Americans realize. What's more, there has been almost no debate in Congress or in statehouses about whether this is a good idea.

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Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has been one of the few lawmakers interested in the issue. He held hearings on the accuracy of facial recognition databases in 2012, and earlier this year requested the General Accountability Office to examine the FBI's massive facial recognition database of 400 million images.

The GAO found the FBI failed to check the accuracy or privacy of the database, which includes 30 million criminal mugshots and 140 million images from visa applications by foreign nationals.

The FBI database also contains drivers' license pictures from 16 US states and 6.7 million photos from the Defense Department's ID's of people detained by US forces abroad.

"Face recognition can be a very useful tool in the fight against crime - it can in fact help us catch violent offenders and criminals," Franken said in a statement. "But I'm also a firm believer that Americans have a fundamental right to privacy."

A spokesman for Senator Franken said he expects that legislation to require more privacy and civil rights safeguards will be introduced in the next session of Congress.

Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and 52 other groups sent a letter to the Department of Justice this week requesting a review of police practices of facial recognition databases.

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The computer software designed to match images is 5 to 10 percent less accurate with African-Americans than whites.

The Georgetown study found that Blacks are likely overrepresented in the face recognition repository searched by Baltimore police, in part because they are arrested at a rate close to twice as high as their share of the state population. Similarly, African-Americans are likely overrepresented in the face recognition database used by Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in Arizona, since they are arrested at a rate three times higher than their share of the state population, according to the ACLU.

Maricopa County also uploaded every Honduran driver's license and booking photo - a concern for civil rights' advocates, who note that Maricopa County has been charged with making unconstitutional stops, arrests and detentions of Hispanics.

ACLU spokesman Jay Stanley says that facial recognition software, in combination with growing numbers of video cameras "has the potential to change what it means to live in America."

Stanley says the burden on false positives falls on the people that can afford it least, African-Americans. The civil rights group wants more debate and regulation at both the federal and state levels.

"With any brand new technology that's entering our society, its incumbent on law enforcement to be open and transparent on how they are using these tools," Stanley told Seeker. "These decisions need to be made by the public, not by the police themselves."

Accuracy is a big issue for facial recognition software. According to a Michigan State University review of commercial software used by police agencies, accuracy is also less for young women who wear makeup, or for people whose images are taken in poor lighting, such as a Metro or bus stop at night.

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Jonathan Phillips, an electronic engineer at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology who works on validating facial recognition software confirmed this. He told Seeker that NIST reviews the software every few years with the goal of a 95 percent accuracy rating. The last NIST test was done in 2013 using mug shots and visa photos.

"...for women in their early 20s, the accuracy is lower than men," Phillips said. "By the time they reach middle age, the performance (of the facial recognition software) evens out."

Phillips says the NIST database studies don't have enough images of African-Americans to make an accuracy estimate.

The accuracy of facial recognition software in general can be improved, he says, if there are several images of a person and the algorithm can "learn" how to make an accurate match.

"They're definitely getting better," he said.