Criminal Justice

Los Angeles sheriff invests in new tech to expand biometric database

Without public notice, Los Angeles County law enforcement officials are building a massive database of biometric information, including iris scans. Credit: KNBC-TV

If you’re stopped by a sheriff’s deputy in Los Angeles County, get ready to have your photo taken. The sheriff’s department will equip deputies with mobile facial recognition technology to expand the largest biometric database outside of the FBI, according to procurement documents.

A $3.5 million contract with DataWorks Plus LLC that was unanimously approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors provides a seven-year extension to the sheriff’s existing lease for Cognitec Systems’ facial recognition software and hardware – including servers and hundreds of smartphones and tablets – that deputies will use to identify people whom they encounter in the field.

The documents also indicate that the technology will have the ability to compile watch lists, which Los Angeles-area law enforcement officers have used to identify people who have open warrants or were documented as active gang members.

Last fall, Reveal uncovered the Los Angeles sheriff’s department initiative to build a massive database of biometric information – fingerprints, iris scans, palm prints and, potentially, voice recordings – taken from arrestees and other people who are stopped by deputies in public. Sheriff’s deputies have been collecting fingerprints with mobile devices for years. However, the new contract significantly increases the number of devices used by deputies to run images of people through the software to identify wanted individuals.

The new equipment in Los Angeles is part of a steady, quiet evolution occurring across the country over how law enforcement officers interact with the public. Biometric information obtained by law enforcement agencies will be shared with other government agencies and private companies. On the consumer side, biometric security and identifiers are being built into devices as varied as smartphones, car locks and gaming consoles. But civil liberties groups are questioning who will have access to such information, how it will be shared and used, and whether this new technology will result in false identifications driven by inaccurate software.

Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who specializes in privacy issues, was surprised at the extent of the L.A. sheriff’s department’s use of facial recognition technology, particularly the mobile devices that deputies employ in the field.

To the San Francisco-based organization, the advent of mobile facial recognition presents the possibility for police to stop people merely to check their identification and document their biometric information for future reference.

“It pushes the line of what’s legal, whether it’s permissible to go up to someone and say, ‘I want to take your picture.’ That’s a different issue, a different standard of suspicion than a mug shot photo collected on booking, where there’s presumably probable cause for the arrest,” Lynch said.

Information on up to 15 million people will be stored in L.A. County’s biometric database. According to the sheriff’s department, there are approximately 6 million photos in its mug shot database.

The L.A. County sheriff’s department, the largest independent local law enforcement agency in the country, is building its own biometric database as part of a national initiative by the FBI to switch its databases of criminal information from fingerprints to biometric identifiers.

The new facial recognition software is intended for the Los Angeles County Regional Identification System unit, which maintains the county’s biometric database. Documents indicate that the software is used in conjunction with Los Angeles County’s mug shot database, as well as the CAL-Photo portal that provides California law enforcement agencies with access to 32 million driver’s license photos.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department isn’t the only law enforcement agency in Southern California to expand its use of facial recognition software. In 2013, The Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered a federally funded pilot project in San Diego County that provided local, state and federal law enforcement agencies with facial recognition-equipped tablets.

Documents from San Diego’s program show that DataWorks’ facial recognition software also is used by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

Video from a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting in January revealed that there was no discussion over the facial recognition contract or the potential privacy concerns it posed to the public. Unlike the Los Angeles Police Department, the sheriff’s department has no independent civilian body that oversees its conduct.

The contract documents contain no specifications about the acceptable error rate for the new facial recognition software. The FBI reportedly accepts a 20 percent failure rate for similar technology, which means there is a 1 in 5 chance that someone could be wrongly identified. There are notable problems with consumer-grade facial recognition programs as well: Google’s face recognition algorithm recently misidentified photos of a black couple as images of gorillas.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. Joshua Thai, who is in charge of the unit that maintains the county’s biometric database, said in a telephone interview that only detectives and analysts currently have access to the facial recognition software in stations.

Thai also told Reveal that mobile devices equipped with facial recognition software were first tested by sheriff’s deputies in 2010. Currently, 126 BlackBerry phones with facial recognition apps have been issued to sheriff’s stations throughout the county, where local commanders decide which deputies receive them.

Facial recognition, Thai said, is not proof of a positive identification but a sophisticated tool that helps narrow down potential suspects.

“We don’t say facial rec is a positive ID – it’s a lead,” he said. “Once we submit a picture to the system, either the Cognitec or NEC software will give you a list of potential matches, and then from there, the detective will have to do legwork.”

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