Under Orlando’s real-time surveillance partnership with Amazon, everyone’s a suspect 

All eyes on us

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click to enlarge A simplified graphic modeled from the city’s planned Rekognition “architecture,” obtained through public records requests, illustrates the path of a camera’s video feed as it would be used in coordination - with Amazon Rekognition facial recognition software. - INFOGRAPHIC BY JOEY ROULETTE
  • Infographic by Joey Roulette
  • A simplified graphic modeled from the city’s planned Rekognition “architecture,” obtained through public records requests, illustrates the path of a camera’s video feed as it would be used in coordination with Amazon Rekognition facial recognition software.

Old methods of identifying a suspect could be tedious – investigators would have to look through a stack of photos by hand, one by one. With MIRS, it's like looking through that stack all at once, Limansky says, and police were able to identify Ramos effectively.

Over 117 million Americans are already in law enforcement facial recognition networks, according to a 2016 report released by the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law. During the study, only the Los Angeles Police Department claimed to run real-time face recognition off street cameras, though four other law enforcement agencies had expressed interest.

Similar to MIRS, the Rekognition program set up by Amazon in Washington County, Oregon, works with photos or still images captured from video footage, says Deputy Jeff Talbot, a spokesperson for the Washington County Sheriff's Office.

Amazon helped Washington County create a database of about 300,000 booking mugshots collected from the county jail. For about $6 to $12 a month, deputies can upload a photo of an unidentified suspect and scan for a possible match. The results come back within seconds.

"The most common ways it's used is when someone goes to a store, they go to a [register] where there's a little camera inside the kiosk," Talbot says. "They act like they're putting stuff in there to pay for it, but before they pay, they grab the bag and walk out the door. We then take that video, we just crop it to a still image of their face, and we run it through our database."

The Washington County Sheriff's Office could also use still images taken from publicly available Facebook videos and footage recorded by a victim on a phone during a crime, as well as photos of the dead and people who can't identify themselves because of a physical or mental incapacitation.

But Talbot is adamant that Washington County is not using Rekognition for mass surveillance or real-time surveillance.

"Our own state laws and our own policies we've written prohibit us from such a use," he says. "We do not want to be attributed to using technology in a manner that we're not using it and don't have any intention to use it."

Talbot says that for Rekognition to be used on live video under their policies, "you'd have to know that everyone within that frame was a suspect of a crime."

"We don't think it should be used for mass surveillance. We feel like we've struck a great balance. We're honoring people's civil liberties here. We're still doing what the public expects, which is fighting crime and solving crime."

Washington County's policies state that without any other evidence, deputies cannot use a facial recognition match as probable cause for arrest or seizure.

"It's a tool," Talbot says. "Investigators are required by our policy to independently corroborate who that person is if they are one of those potential leads that the software came back with as a match."

OPD has experience with the type of facial recognition used by Washington County. For some time, the department and more than 240 local, state and federal agencies have been accessing a facial recognition database that stores photos of every licensed driver in Florida.

Since 2001, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has run the Face Analysis Comparison & Examination System, also known as FACES. The database collects tens of millions of images from Florida driver's licenses and IDs, plus offender mugshots from state prison and county jail bookings. Law enforcement officers must upload a photo of the person they want to identify into the FACES system, which then compares it against the database for a possible match. All together, these agencies run close to 8,000 searches through FACES each month, and they aren't required to have "reasonable suspicion" to run a search, according to the report from the Center on Privacy & Technology.

But a number of issues can affect how FACES works.

Records from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office show the system's performance is adversely affected when officers upload photos of poor quality. The system also experiences kinks when people of interest have significantly aged, are twins, or have facial hair, are wearing sunglasses or have undergone plastic surgery.

In addition, the Center on Privacy & Technology found the database was subject to little oversight – Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told researchers the system was "not really" audited to look for potential abuse.

Currently, the use of facial recognition is being tested in Florida's First District Court of Appeals. Detectives from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office used FACES to get leads on a man who bought $50 worth of cocaine, according to the Florida Times-Union. But neither deputies nor prosecutors disclosed that information to attorneys defending Willie Allen Lynch. The court will determine whether the state is obligated to provide defendants with all of the photo matches returned by FACES.

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