In a demonstration video on the FaceFirst website, the company touts their product as being a great addition to any acquisition device, specifically suggesting that clients consider integrating the software with tactical robots, mobile phones and surveillance drones. Coincidently, just last month the sheriff of Alameda County, California asked the US Homeland Security department for as much as $100,000 in order to have an unmanned aerial vehicles — a drone — in his agency’s arsenal for the sake of protecting the security of his citizens.
Weeks earlier, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told congressional lawmakers that she endorses the idea of sending drones to California to aid with law enforcement efforts. Pleads like the one out of Alameda have been occurring across the country in a rate considered alarming by privacy advocates, but rarely has that opposition brought into the spotlight the scary surveillance capabilities that any police agency may soon have in their hands. While the issues of Fourth Amendment erosions and privacy violations have indeed emerged, the actual abilities of surveillance devices — snagging faces from large crowds in milliseconds and sending info to the authorities — have not.
“Facial characteristics become biometric templates compared against multiple watch lists created from customer photos or massive criminal databases,” the promo explains. Those lists can be custom created by law enforcement agencies to track a ‘most-wanted’ roster of suspected criminals but can pull from databases where any biometric information is already available or can be inputted on the fly.
Discovery of San Diego’s use of FaceFirst comes just two months after the FBI announced it had already rolled out a program to upgrade its current Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) that keeps track of citizens with criminal records across the country with one that relies on face recognition. The FBI expects the Next Generation Identification (NGI) program will include as many as 14 million photographs by the time the project is in full swing in just two years, relying on digital images already stored on federal databases, such as the ones managed by state motor vehicle departments. In the state of New Jersey, the DMV has recently told drivers that they are not allowed to smile for driver’s license photos because it could cause complications in terms of logging biometric data in their own facial recognition system.
The FBI said that, by rolling out NGI, they “will be able to provide services to enhance interoperability between stakeholders at all levels of government, including local, state, federal and international partners.” The unnamed San Diego law enforcement agency already with the ability to match millions of faces in a single moment may be relying right now on that connectedness to keep track of anyone they wish.
According to an article in the Los Angeles Times last week, 70 percent of biometrics spending comes from law enforcement, the military and the government. The private sector is scooping up that scanning power too, though, with FaceFirst having already cut deals with Samsung to provide them with technology for use in closed-circuit surveillance cameras marketed to businesses. But while the Federal Trade Commission has informed companies and corporations that they need to be more transparent about how personally identifiable information is stored on their servers, the Times notes that no guidelines like that exist for law enforcement agencies, who may very well sit on mounds of intelligence without good reason.
"You don't need a warrant to use this technology on someone," Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) said last year during a congressional hearing about the use of expanding surveillance technology. "You might not even need to have a reasonable suspicion that they're involved in a crime."
Aside from FaceFirst, law enforcement is using that excuse to pull data on persons — of interest and otherwise — even when their faces are protected. As RT reported recently, an ever-growing number of police departments are investing in license plate scanners that let officers identify as many as 10,000 vehicles and their registered owners in a single shift. Much like how FaceFirst can pick out dozens of suspects from a single photograph and send data to custom servers, those license plate readers can pick up the precise location of persons never suspected of a crime, making rampant invasion of privacy just collateral damage as the surveillance monster state grows larger
“The cameras will catch things you didn’t see, cars you wouldn’t have run, and the beauty of it is that it runs everything,” Lieutenant Christopher Morgon of the Long Beach, California Police Department says in promotional material for an automated license plate recognition device manufactured by PIPS Technology.
The Federal Trade Commission has offered the security industry best practice suggestions about how long to hold onto data picked up by surveillance cameras, but safeguards for law enforcement agencies are largely absent. In the case of the scanners used to find license plates on the streets of Southern California, Jon Campbell of LA Weekly writes, “The location and photo information is uploaded to a central database, then retained for years — in case it's needed for a subsequent investigation.”
Rosenkrantz says FaceFirst is experiencing triple digit growth in 2012 and expects sustainable expansion to continue throughout the next five years. By 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration expects that as many as 30,000 drones will be operating in US airspace.