In Florida, facial recognition is advancing faster than lawmakers can regulate it


  • Photo by Joey Roulette
During a presentation about electronic privacy rights on Wednesday in Tallahassee, Florida House members received their first formal lesson on facial recognition surveillance – an increasingly popular machine-learning policing tool developing faster than lawmakers can understand it.

The briefing to the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee was led by four law enforcement officials, including Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, and comes as technology giants like Amazon respond to a growing demand for more advanced law enforcement technology.

And as the demand soars, the need to address privacy laws is greater than ever, says subcommittee chair Rep. James Grant, who is trying to catch lawmakers up to speed with the rate surveillance technology is advancing.

"What I really want more than anything is a conversation that looks at all ramifications," Grant said in an interview. "My personal belief is that the Fourth and Fifth amendment do not bend to innovation. Innovation needs to fit within the parameters of the Fourth and Fifth amendment."

Currently, there are no state or federal laws governing facial recognition surveillance.

Sheriff Gualtieri oversees the country's largest facial recognition network of its kind, named FR-Net: a behemoth database storing 25 million images of faces, mostly pulled from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles database of drivers license photos.

The network is handy for when police officers need to automatically identify suspects in custody. Like running a fingerprint through the state's database of fingerprints, officers can capture a photo of a suspect and match it with a similar (much larger) database of stored photos and mugshots. Your face, like fingerprints and DNA, is the unique identifier.

But FR-Net is nothing new. It started with the help of federal grants from the Department of Defense and the FBI nearly 20 years ago as an effort to ramp up post-9/11 homeland security.

"We run the largest one in the country, we have about 25 million enrolled images, and we have hundreds of agencies that are participating in it," Gualtieri said.

While most lawmakers lack understanding of FR-Net, even experts like Grant and Democratic ranking member Rep. Mike Grieco, a former criminal defense attorney, are blindsided by the growth of "real-time" facial recognition. The real-time integration means every person who passes in front of a public surveillance camera running the software is scanned, regardless of prior suspicion of a crime.

"We don't do that," Gualtieri told the subcommittee, not referring to any particular system but exemplifying a real-time surveillance network. "That's the issue. The random collecting of those images is what gives most people the pause, the concern, the angst and the lack of comfort with it. … I don't think it's the right thing to do."

Orlando is the only city in the country openly testing real-time facial recognition software (although only the faces of seven police officers are being used during the test). Amazon Rekognition does exactly what Gualtieri – who oversees the country's largest facial recognition database – thinks is morally wrong. Orlando city staff will decide whether or not to fully acquire the technology in April.

"If I am in public and a police officer asks me for identification, I have the right to refuse. … Use of this technology strips me of that right," Grieco said. "We should not have to waive all rights as Floridians just because we decide to go for a walk."

The American Civil Liberties Union brought Orlando's pilot with Amazon to light in May 2018, triggering a wave of national criticism from civil rights groups.

“If you mention the growing use of facial recognition technology, both in the government and private sectors, to a lawmaker, and they don’t have an immediate look of concern in their eyes, then they don’t know enough about it," said Kara Gross, ACLU Florida's legislative director.

"I would say the likelihood that anyone has formally received any sort of presentation about facial recognition, or that level of technology … the likelihood is very very low," Grieco said.

The Washington County Sheriff's Office in Oregon is the only other law enforcement agency in the country openly using Amazon Rekognition, but as a tool similar to FR-Net and not for real-time surveillance.

"Our own state laws and our own policies we've written prohibit us from such a use," Deputy Jeff Talbot, a WCSO spokesperson told Orlando Weekly in October. "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."

Oregon's state legislature bans the use of facial recognition software on body-worn cameras. Though WCSO refuses to use a real-time integrated system, the state still has no laws preventing it from doing so.

On Orlando's Rekognition pilot, Grieco added, "Listen, Minority Report is a great movie, but living in it in the next year or two is not something that I want. That's not something I want for the residents of Florida as well."

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