Police in Maryland are using social media facial recognition to track suspects. (WJZ)
A five-year-old program in Maryland that lets police compare images of unidentified criminal suspects with millions of motor vehicle records using increasingly advanced facial recognition software has come under fire from civil liberties advocates, who say such programs lack transparency and infringe on privacy rights.
Police have used the Maryland Image Repository System with little fanfare since 2011. But the program has attracted increased scrutiny since the American Civil Liberties Union in California released documents last week showing the system was used to monitor protesters during the unrest and rioting in Baltimore last year.
That followed other recent disclosures about law enforcement in Baltimore adopting clandestine technologies, including cellphone tracking and aerial surveillance.
The Center on Privacy & Technology at the Georgetown University Law Center plans to release a national study Tuesday on the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement. The center highlights Maryland's position at the cutting edge of the technology and questions its merits.
Maryland is one of at least five states that has provided access to driver's licenses, local police mug shots and other corrections records to the FBI, according to state and federal data. A dozen other states provide driver's license photographs only. Still others have laws prohibiting the use of facial recognition.
"With Maryland, we see one of the more aggressive deployments of facial recognition technology," said Clare Garvie, an associate at the Center on Privacy & Technology.
Alvaro Bedoya, the center's executive director, warned against government encroachment on privacy.
"We are crossing a kind of Rubicon here, where states like Maryland are creating biometric databases of law-abiding citizens," he said. "The next step in this progress is the use of real-time facial recognition."
Bedoya said facial recognition software could soon be combined with vast surveillance systems, such as Baltimore's hundreds of CitiWatch cameras, for even more pervasive monitoring.
"It wouldn't take that much for Maryland or Baltimore to make that kind of investment," he said. "In the future, we might see a world where every face is scanned."
State officials have said concerns about the program are overblown and did not shy away from the state's reputation for adopting the technology early.
Stephen T. Moyer, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which operates and maintains the database, said his agency and Maryland law enforcement agencies will continue to "make use of all legally available technology to aggressively pursue all criminals."
"We're using it aggressively because we pursue criminals aggressively," said Gerard Shields, a department spokesman. "That's a priority for us."
The database includes more than 7 million images from the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration and more than 3 million mug shots and other photographs of arrestees, officials said.
Every night, the MVA sends off more.
"The MVA has a long-standing practice of sharing photos and data with law enforcement. We're talking decades and decades," MVA spokesman Chuck Brown said. "Even before digital photos were invented, we had a system in place to share photos with law enforcement."
Officials estimate that between 6,000 and 7,000 law enforcement officers from agencies and departments across the state have access to the database.
The system allows them to scan images of criminal suspects from a surveillance camera or a social media account and then compare them to the millions of stored photographs from the state and tens of millions more from the FBI's own federal mug shot repository.
The dimensions of individuals' faces — the width of a nose, the shape of an ear — help the software spit out matches for consideration by investigators.
"The process is only a tool," Shields said. "It does not meet the standard for evidence. It is not replacing investigative work that law enforcement is doing."
Shields said the state keeps logs of users who access the system, but not the results of searches.
"We have never received a report about the system being abused," he said.
Kevin Combs, chief information officer for the corrections department, said the database adheres to all applicable laws regarding the expungement of criminal records.
During one recent week, Maryland's system was accessed 177 times, Shields said.
The Maryland State Police and police departments across the Baltimore region — including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Howard and Harford counties — all confirmed using it, but few provided details.
Howard County police have used it mostly for robbery investigations, and sometimes in theft and fraud cases, a spokeswoman said. The sheriff's office in Carroll County has used it a few times, but it has never resulted in a suspect being identified, a spokesman there said.
T.J. Smith, a Baltimore police spokesman, said his agency used the software "when there was rioting going on in Baltimore last year for purposes of trying to identify those who were involved in criminal wrongdoing."
Smith declined to answer other questions about the department's use of the technology, including the claim by the private company Geofeedia — obtained by the ACLU — that police had used it to identify individuals with outstanding warrants during the unrest.
Civil liberties advocates say the software can make mistakes that send police officers to the doorsteps of innocent people. They also question whether the public, including protesters, are protected against abuses.
"The chilling effects on people exercising their First Amendment rights seem pretty clear to me," said David Rocah, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland.
In recent months, Rocah has criticized the Baltimore Police Department for having secretly used so-called stingray technology, which mimics a cellphone tower and helps pinpoint a device's location by triggering all phones in an area to connect to it, as well as a private surveillance plane.
Now Rocah says the state and the Baltimore police are not disclosing enough information about the facial recognition program.
"There's a question of who is being subjected to this kind of facial recognition search in the first place," Rocah said. "Is it only Black Lives Matter demonstrators who get this treatment? Are they drawing those circles only in certain neighborhoods? The context in which it's described here seems quintessentially improper."
Bedoya said research shows that facial recognition software is less accurate when identifying African-American faces, making it "least accurate for the population that the Baltimore police is most likely to use it on."
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State officials said they were not aware of such issues.
Garvie said Maryland and other states are building out applications for facial recognition without sufficient policies in place to govern how they should function, and are doing little to inform the public about the programs.
"We're seeing the technology advance very, very rapidly right now, and as the technology advances, we're going to see more and more aggressive deployment," Garvie said. "We're not seeing any public dialogue around this."