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Smile: Your life’s history is one photo snap away

Tue, 12/03/2013 - 12:21pm
Stephanie Carmichael, Contributor

Military technology is now a resource available to local police departments. What’s used on the battlefield is entering our home turf.

Facial recognition software sounds harmless enough until you think about what it could create: a whole database with information on each and every one of us. Law enforcement in the San Diego, Calif. area now has the authority and tools to build such a library, called the Tactical Identification System (TACIDS). All it takes is the snap of a camera on a smartphone or tablet.

The mobile technology is supposed to help identity suspects when caught when they might otherwise give false names or lie about their past convictions or even their immigration status. It matches a photo of a person taken on the spot to one of the 1.4 million booking photos and 348,000 arrestees in the San Diego County. It pulls the mug shot, which is found in the same database that stores 32 million driver’s license photos, from any previous arrest and exposes personal details like names, addresses, and criminal history. Twenty-five local, state, and federal agencies already participate in the system.

This all sounds good when you think about how TACIDS could assist in arrests or even help spread photos of wanted criminals or missing persons faster and more widely. Since the program works with mobile technology, just about any smartphone or tablet would do, which means it’s cost efficient and easily distributed. But the technology was approved without public hearings or notice, so there hasn’t been much debate about the legality or ethics of its use. It’s possible that any civilian’s picture could be recorded in traditional encounters with police, especially if TACIDS becomes increasingly widespread.

That means we could all become entries in a database sooner or later, our whole histories only a quick camera snap away when we’re in public. You might not even know that it’s happening. Is this worse than the NSA fear of tapped phone lines and email surveillance? It’s not a comforting thought, that’s for sure.

Neither is the data from the Electronic Privacy Information Center that says the program could fail to make a correct identification match as often as one in five times, involving innocent people in situations that have nothing to do with them. That would only complicate the process, not simplify it.

One officer at the Chula Vista Police Department in California even suggested that the photo method of identification would safeguard against racism because “photographs are neutral,” but that’s not exactly true. The technology might be unbiased, but an officer could easily choose to enter someone’s photo into the system based on his own prejudices. A hunch or concern could lead to the routine creation of countless permanent records.

It only takes eight seconds.

Is this another invasion of privacy, a new type of law enforcement abuse? A safer future could mean one where technology becomes so precise and clever that we’re all data in a system, accessible by almost anyone.

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