Facial Recognition Technology Spreads from Troops to Cops


U.S. commandos in 2011 famously used facial recognition technology to confirm the identify of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden after the raid on his compound in Pakistan.

Soldiers and Marines in 2013 employed the same handheld device, called the Secure Electronic Enrollment Kit -- which looks more fitting for an eye doctor's office than a rucksack -- to distinguish potential Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

Troops praised the biometrics recorder, designed to scan a person's iris and facial features, along with fingerprints, and send the data to a Federal Bureau of Investigation database.

"This device is often listed by the troops as nearly as essential as their weapon, as the world has changed, and we don’t always know just by looking whether the person is a friend or a foe," David Buckley, chief executive officer of Cross Match Technologies, which makes the product, has said.

Now, similar technology is spreading to domestic law enforcement agencies, according to an article today by Timothy Williams and other reporters for The New York Times. The difference is police in San Diego and other cities have the software installed directly on their smartphones, turning them into so-called tactical identification systems.

One interesting takeaway: Even as the software has become more accurate, it's still far from perfect. As Williams writes:

"The software can identify 16,000 points on a person's face -- to determine the distance between the eyes or the shape of the lips, for instance -- and compare them with thousands of similar points in police booking or other photos at a rate of more than one million faces a second."
He later notes:
But  people who are not criminal suspects are included in the database, and the error rate for the software is as high as 20 percent -- meaning the authorities could misidentify millions of people."
It's easy to see the pros and cons of the technology -- police scanned at least one retired firefighter who was involved in a dispute with a neighbor but who wasn't even charged, yet they also used a photo that a property manager snapped on his cell phone to identify the man who assaulted him.

While consumer advocacy and civil liberty groups will continue to argue the technology violates individual privacy, it's hard to see how it won't be increasingly used by law enforcement agencies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, after all, is building a next-generation identification biometrics database with iris scans, finger prints and other data -- all of which is designed to be available to other federal and state agencies.

What do you think? Where does it go from here?

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