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Ohio tries to put a good face on its unsettling new surveillance practice

Fri, 09/13/2013 - 12:38pm
Chris Warner, Executive Editor

If you expect and enjoy a fair amount of anonymity in public, the state of Ohio and perhaps the state you live in have a program that will fly in the face of that increasingly antiquated notion.

According to a report in the Cincinnati Enquirer (http://cin.ci/1aFH2Wt), police in Ohio are able to use facial recognition technology to match a person’s photo with their driver’s license photo or police mug shot. Of course, police have always been able to access drivers’ license photos. But the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway allows those with access to it (totaling 30,000 including court clerks, bailiffs, parole officers, and out-of-state and national law enforcement agencies, (http://cin.ci/1emSicV) to feed images taken from security cameras or any snapshot into the database and get, in return, information on an individual that’s typically on a driver’s license – name, address, phone number and date of birth. Oh, and minors are also included in this database. There are, apparently, similar police databases with this facial recognition feature in 26 other states.

The same concerns of misuse that are possible with police use of license plate scanners or cell phone data without any oversight can be expected with such “Gateway” programs. That can mean anyone who has access to the information can use that information to stalk someone else, such as a political rival or ex-lover, to name a few. Someone can go to a political rally or demonstration in support of a particular, perhaps counter-cultural cause and will not have the anonymity one used to expect – and open themselves up to a vendetta or harm if someone with database access should choose to feed photos into it with ill-intent. In the case of Ohio’s Gateway, one snapshot will return up to 12 license photos or mugshots. I’m sure the “I’ve got nothing to hide” crowd won’t mind getting caught up in searches and whatever unintended consequences come about.

But there are protections against such abuse of the database, right? Well, not if it’s a secret – even from the man at the top – and if the department implements it first and calls it a “test” later. That’s what makes the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway so troubling. The program went live on June 6 and only came to light in late August. During that time, Attorney General Mike DeWine was informed of the program on June 20 – two weeks after it went live; internal debates followed regarding whether to call it  a ”test” or not, whether to take the system down for analysis and policy updates, and how to eventually present the program to the public. Even more troubling were some of Mike DeWine’s comments: “I didn’t know it was live, but I wasn’t concerned that it was up live…. If we find something wrong, we would change it and if we find something alarming, we would shut it down.  The fact that over half of states use facial recognition technology… indicate to me that what we have is adequate.” (http://cin.ci/1aFH2Wt)

DeWine’s comments sum up exactly what’s wrong with advanced technology in the hands of the government and law enforcement. As with the NSA, information for public scrutiny is insufficient and sometimes not disclosed at all. Government and law enforcement officials have tremendous capabilities and equally tremendous responsibilities, yet too often their line of thinking is to deploy first and worry about telling the public or dealing with problems later. Perhaps they can sense the public is getting wary of a surveillance state and they realize their ability to use the latest and greatest in tech would be in jeopardy if citizens have an honest debate. So they get their systems up and running and come back and say, “everybody else is doing it”. And government is getting really good at knowing what everybody else is doing. Too good.

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