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FBI, Other Law Enforcement Agencies Using Millions of Photos for ‘Virtual Line-ups’

Posted by Steve Karimi | Oct 24, 2016 | 0 Comments

Have you ever been tapped by police to stand in a line-up so a witness to a crime can pick-out a potential suspect?

If your answer is, “No,” think again. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the Federal Bureau of Investigations has compiled a database from the driver's license photos of 64 million people in the United States and the pictures are used every day to create virtual line-ups. Suspects are identified not by human witnesses, but by computer algorithms designed to detect facial characteristics. It is an FBI practice that is legal in 16 states. Another 10 jurisdictions have local and state law enforcement agencies that are building their own virtual suspect databases from people who may have never committed a crime. All total, the photos of more than 117 million citizens are being used.

Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy & Technology released the results this month of a year-long study. It reveals one in two American adults is in a law enforcement facial recognition database. Though the technology was designed to aid law enforcement officers in catching violent criminals and fugitives, it has potentially ominous implications.

Even though the FBI said in a statement that the computer algorithms do not consider gender, age or skin color, a disproportionate number of people included in the law enforcement facial recognition databases are black.

Another potential problem: Of the 52 agencies the Georgetown think tank found to use facial recognition, only one, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, has a policy that expressly prohibits its agents from using the technology to track individuals engaging in political, religious or other protected free speech.

No state has passed a comprehensive law regulating the use of facial recognition data by law enforcement officers, nor could the study researchers find an agency that required a search warrant to access photos for the database. In addition, none of the major facial recognition systems are audited for misuse.

Further, facial recognition is less accurate than fingerprinting, particularly when used in real-time or via large databases. Yet only two agencies, the San Francisco Police Department and the Seattle region's South Sound 911, insisted that their purchase of the technology be contingent on the accuracy of the software. Even if the software proves to be moderately accurate, however, a law enforcement officer is still required to make the final determination about a match. If the officer is not well-trained, it has been shown that about half the time they misidentify a suspect based on the computer generated photo selection.

Seattle police began using facial-recognition software in 2014, initially inputting the mug shots of about 350,000 people that had been jailed at some point. Of the 26 jurisdictions reviewed by the Center on Privacy & Technology Seattle scored the highest overall for its safeguards and best practices.

If you have been falsely accused of a crime based on faulty witness identification or facial recognition, you need the services of a qualified attorney. In Washington State, call the Seattle law office of Steve Karimi at (206) 621-8777 or contact him online.

About the Author

Steve Karimi

Steve Karimi attended Pepperdine University School of Law. After graduation he worked as a prosecutor in Seattle where he gained valuable insight to the criminal justice system. Attorney Karimi uses his experiences as a prosecutor everyday only now he fights for the justice of those accused.


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If you were arrested or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Seattle or surrounding areas of Washington State, the Law Offices of Steve Karimi can help. Call 206-660-6200 24 hours a day for a free consultation.

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Named a "rising star" in criminal defense by Washington Law and Politics magazine, Mr. Karimi is a former prosecutor for King County who uses his insight into prosecution strategies to protect his clients' rights in criminal court.