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Circuit breaker thieves shine light on sheriff’s use of facial recognition

EnlargeTomás Del Coro
Who knew that there was money in stole..

EnlargeTomás Del Coro

Who knew that there was money in stolen circuit breakers?

Late last month, Riverside County prosecutors, east of Los Angeles, indicted two men on charges of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars of circuit breakers from businesses and movie theaters in southeastern California in recent years.

According to The Desert Sun and court filings that were provided to Ars by that newspaper, the two suspects were identified by a combination of "security footage, facial recognition software, and a license plate scanner."

While video surveillance and license plate scanners are relatively old hat, facial recognition capabilities are just now beginning to proliferate across law enforcement agencies nationwide. Mention of such technology pops up occasionally. Its use has not generally been challenged in courts.

On Tuesday, when Ars contacted the Riverside County Sheriff's Department to ask basic questions of the agency—How often are such facial recognition searches run? Are they routine? How many false positives has the RCSD encountered?—we were politely rebuffed.

Earlier this year, Ars reported on the expansion of such technology at airports. Last year, Georgetown University researchers found that half of all Americans are already in a facial recognition database.

In January 2015, the FBI announced that its facial recognition project, which can draw upon millions of mug shots and other photos, is out of the pilot stage and is at "full operational capability." In August 2014, a 14-year fugitive, accused of child sex abuse and kidnapping, was apprehended as a result of facial recognition.

This week, Ars contacted all five members of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors and the relevant state legislators: State Senator Richard Roth, and Assemblyman Jose Medina. We wanted to ask about their knowledge and understanding of how facial recognition is used in the county. We received only one response.

"Thank you for reaching out to our office," Kelly Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Medina’s office, emailed.

"Unfortunately, Assemblymember Medina is unable to accommodate your request for comment. We do really appreciate the information though, as this is an important topic. We will bring this information to the Assemblymember to keep on his radar."

A tool is a tool is a tool

When Ars emailed the RCSD, we received an email from Sgt. Chris Willison, a spokesman.

"It has been utilized for the past few years and has assisted in identifying subjects and furthering criminal investigations," he emailed.

"We use a local database which pulls from persons who have been booked into a correctional facility in Riverside County as well as includes the surrounding counties entries (mugshots) as well. It does not capture any of the photos taken from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) database, and only from persons who have previously been booked into the county jail. This information is then requested and sent back with either a subject identification or no match to the generated inquiry."

On Tuesday evening, Willison called Ars to respond to some basic follow-up questions that we had sent by email. He reiterated that the facial recognition system is simply an "investigative tool" and that RCSD deputies also have access to booking photos in nearby Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

"It will give the investigative officer or detective a response, it is not a positive ID at that point in time," he said, acknowledging that a hit did not constitute "probable cause for an arrest."

Curiously, he also said that "false positives wouldn’t be possible as we don’t use it as the only tool."

Willison, who has served on the RSCD for more than 11 years, declined to even estimate how often such facial recognition searches were performed.

"I can reiterate it to you that we use it as a tool," he said. "The data on the hard numbers is not retained. Any information that I would give you would strictly be speculation on my point—any hard numbers or even a ballpark."

He did admit that he himself had used it "throughout the course of several investigations" but declined to go into any further detail.

Willison would not even be more specific as to when the RCSD first acquired the technology, saying simply that it had been "a few years."

A response to a 2011 public records filing made by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California simply says that the "facial recognition program makes a comparison and provides the user with a list of possible matches."

A 2015 press release by NEC says that it was chosen to be the vendor for Riverside and San Bernardino’s shared CAL-ID database, which includes fingerprint, facial recognition data, and more.

The privacy experts that Ars spoke with indicated that Riverside’s lack of transparency is unfortunately common and also troubling.

"Considering face recognition matches possible IDs or investigative leads only is the norm—at this point, which in theory is a protection against false positives," Clare Garvie, a Georgetown University legal fellow who studies facial recognition, emailed Ars.

"Bottom line is we have no idea what the ‘investigative lead only’ and ‘further investigation needed’ means beyond that the prosecution doesn't introduce it into court as a positive ID. It doesn't provide meaningful protection against reliance, perhaps exclusively, on the results of a face recognition match to make an arrest."

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