A Balancing Act: Law Enforcement Cameras vs Data Privacy

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Click to learn more about author Cathy Nolan.

You’ve all seen it on TV – detectives and their teams trace a suspect by using video and  cellphone cameras, social media, DNA analysis, fingerprint and facial recognition databases, telephone conversations, cameras mounted on police vehicles, and tracking devices on Smartphones and GPS.  How accurate are these devices and how effective are they in apprehending criminals and – can they be used against innocent people who have not violated any laws and are not a threat to anyone?  In this blog I am going to write about the use of cameras to locate criminals and how they might be used in ways the public hasn’t yet considered

First let’s consider facial recognition software.  I reported in an earlier blog that retail stores are using facial recognition to track shoppers and market more “effectively” to them, and we all know Facebook uses this software to “tag” you in pictures posted by other people.  But facial recognition software as a crime-fighting tool is still being questioned.  Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology reported in 2016 that police departments in nearly half of U.S. states can use facial-recognition and while some departments only use facial-recognition to confirm the identity of a suspect who’s been detained; others continuously analyze footage from surveillance cameras to determine exactly who is walking by at any particular moment. Altogether, more than 117 million American adults are subject to face-scanning systems.

On the FBI website, it is stated that the FBI uses two different types of facial recognition software.  The first is based on mug-shots and is known as the Interstate Photo System (IPS) which allows the FBI and others to search and return a gallery of candidate photos after which there needs to be a manual review to determine if any of the photos match the suspect.  The second type used is the FACE Analysis Comparison Examination System (FACES) which accepts “probe” photos as part of an investigation.  Either system can be accessed by police departments.

Many of those FACES records have been uploaded from driver licenses without the individual’s knowledge.  Not only that, local police don’t need a reason to search facial recognition databases leaving them open misuse such as monitoring people attending protests or certain types of religious or political meetings, and even FACES admits that there are usually multiple hits rather than positively identifying one person.

Privacy advocates are against law enforcement using facial recognition databases because they can wrongly target a person who then has to prove that they are not the person in the matched photo.  Defense attorneys also say that the use of this software isn’t always disclosed as part of pre-trial discovery, keeping defense attorneys from investigating the possibility of errors.

Another concern is the use of body cameras worn by the police  A Los Angeles Times article from 2014 asks “Are these cameras going to eventually be hooked up to systems where cops can scan the street and pick out anybody’s face or anybody’s car to see if there is an outstanding warrant?”  We all want the police to be able to arrest the bad guys and we also want to see that the police do not abuse suspects once they are arrested, but do we want the police to be able constantly record us when we step outside our home?  And if called to enter a private house, officers will also be recording and taking pictures of our possessions, our family members, and the layout of our homes.  It is important that the police have the right policies in place to protect us from criminals, but these policies also need to have transparency and accountability, otherwise police cameras are functioning as a mass surveillance tool.

The same holds true of scanner cameras which are mounted on the hood or roof of a police car and take pictures of license plates and drivers at the rate of thousands per second.  Most of the pictures taken are not related to any suspect or criminal activity but are stored in databases as a kind of “pool” to be used for whatever reason the police deem necessary.  This can be either authorized or unauthorized surveillance and it’s the later that is disturbing.  There have been instances where women were spied upon for no legal reason or citizen’s movements were tracked to see which businesses, churches and meetings they frequented.

Using facial recognition software and police surveillance cameras make it much easier to create a complete picture of the private life of an individual. We all have a private life which we don’t necessarily want others, or the government, to track.  The question the public should be asking is “do I want to give up more of my privacy to let law enforcement pursue criminals and keep an eye on certain types of organizations such as street gangs, drug rings, organized retail crime, fraud networks, and terror cells–when the effectiveness of this type of observation has not yet been proven to be effective in stopping crime?”  It’s a hard decision and one that the people, the courts, and the legislature will be debating for a long time.  As of now we haven’t had much of a choice, but legislation is coming and we need to voice our opinion to our legislators and local law enforcement agencies.

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