Md. use of facial recognition software questioned by privacy advocates

WASHINGTON  — New technology can help pick a criminal out from a crowd, but civil liberties advocates are concerned Maryland’s use of facial recognition software jeopardizes the privacy of innocent citizens.

Under Maryland’s Image Repository System, the state is one of at least five that provides access to driver’s licenses, local police mug shots and other corrections records to the FBI.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union in California released documents showing the system was used to monitor protesters during last year’s unrest and rioting in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, The Baltimore Sun reports.

The system allows police to scan images of criminal suspects from a surveillance camera and run them through a state database that includes more than 7 million Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration images and more than 3 million mug shots of people who have been arrested in Maryland.

Instantaneously comparing dimensions of faces, the software spits out potential matches, which investigators can use in determining whether someone caught on surveillance video is previously known to police.

The Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University Law Center plans to release a study Tuesday on the use of facial recognition software by police, and questions its merits.

“We are crossing a kind of Rubicon here, where states like Maryland are creating biometric databases of law-abiding citizens,” said Alvaro Bedoya, the center’s executive director. “The next step in this progress is the use of real-time facial recognition,” Bedoya told The Sun.

Stephen Moyer, secretary of Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which operates and maintains the database, said the state will continue to use legally available technology.

“We’re using it aggressively because we pursue criminals aggressively,” said department spokesman Gerard Shields.

During a recent week, the system was accessed 177 times, he said.

“The process is only a tool — it does not meet the standard for evidence,” Shields told the newspaper, saying 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.

Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith confirmed the agency used the software during rioting in the spring of last year, “for purposes of trying to identify those who were involved in criminal wrongdoing.”

However, Smith declined to tell The Sun  whether police had used it to identify individuals with outstanding warrants during the unrest.

“The chilling effects on people exercising their First Amendment rights seem pretty clear to me,” said ACLU of Maryland staff attorney David Rocah.

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