Caught on Camera: Facial recognition software raises privacy concerns

New developments in facial recognition technology are raising serious questions about privacy and rule of law. (WWMT)

New developments in facial recognition technology are raising serious questions about privacy and rule of law.

Police have been using facial recognition for years to investigate cases, but both police and attorneys said the technology is changing much faster than the laws that regulate it.

Angie Yankowski works for a highly specialized unit within the Michigan State Police. She uses a facial recognition system to help detectives track down potential suspects.

"Cases we help support could be homicide investigations, narcotics trafficking, child exploitation or identity theft cases as well," Yankowski said.

The state police software analyzes key points on a face, then searches a database of roughly 50 million photos seeking a match. That database is called the statewide network of agency photos or (SNAP). Those photos could be a copy of your driver's license or a mug shot. Privacy laws dictate the limited reasons police can use to search those photos and use this technology.

"The most important thing to know about facial recognition is that we never consider it a form of positive identification. We use it as a tool to provide investigative leads only," Yankowski said.

Attorneys said police can use any tool they want during an investigation, including facial recognition technology. The technology is very easy to find and purchase. On Amazon, Newschannel 3 was able to find a camera that recognizes faces for $41. But it's not the accessibility of this technology that causes worry. It's the advancements and potential police uses. According to Bloomberg News, in June, Amazon pitched its facial recognition technology as a tool for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, sparking heavy criticism from civil rights groups.

Tech companies such as Digital Barriers are developing advanced forms of facial recognition, including police body cams that scan and recognize faces in real time. Developers at Digital Barriers said video, instead of a still image, provides more accurate identification.

"We are seeing an increase in our law enforcement getting facial recognition, but we are also seeing the Department of Defense and, of course, the intelligence community as well," said Nicola Dickinson, vice president of Digital Barriers Americas.

Dickinson said her company values technological advances in addition to people's privacy.

"They always have checks and balances, and we are very careful to whom we sell facial recognition to because obviously we don't want to be violating laws ourselves," she said.

Earlier this year, software company Microsoft urged Congress to regulate the use of facial recognition. The company president called facial recognition a useful but potentially troubling product.

Kalamazoo-based attorney Don Smith points out that while police can legally use any type of facial recognition to investigate a crime, it's hard to bring the results as evidence before a judge.

"At this point in time the facial recognition software by itself would not be admissible evidence. At some point in time it might be well settled enough where it could be," said Smith, an attorney at Willis Law.

"Part of the problem with facial recognition technology is that it's advanced beyond legislation," Yankowski said.

She reminds people that in the end, a match using facial recognition technology is not a case closed. Investigators must still gather thorough evidence to prove someone is guilty of a crime.

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