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Privacy advocates concerned as SDPD ramps up use of facial recognition technology


San Diego police agencies are doubling up on the use of facial recognition devices to identify suspects in the field and with more than twice as many cameras deployed as last year, privacy advocates are concerned.

Officers use mobile devices to take photos of suspects and then facial recognition software compares the photos against a countywide mug shot database.

Recently uncovered records show taxpayers paid more than $540,000 to fund facial recognition in San Diego County since the program’s inception.

“If you have not been arrested and booked into jail in San Diego, then you won’t be in the system, ever,” said SDPD Lt. Scott Wahl. “We don’t add new pictures that we take in the field. It’s just existing jail booking photos.” The local mug shot database currently includes more than 400,000 people. That number increases every time someone gets booked into jail, whether or not they are ultimately convicted of a crime.

This concerns Dave Maass, an investigative researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

“Just because you have been arrested once doesn’t mean you lose your right to privacy,” said Maass. “The thing that I worry about is facial recognition becomes like automatic license plate readers and everywhere you go there are cameras that are able to track where you’re moving because they’re able to identify your face.”

However, for that to happen, the SDPD facial recognition technology would need to expand to larger, public databases like DMV photos or pictures posted on Facebook. So far that hasn’t happened, but new technology is emerging.

By policy, San Diego police officers can only use facial recognition if the suspect has been detained as part of a criminal investigation; or if the officer suspects the person is using false identification.

Watch the full video report by CBS8.com.

Previously reported, EFF and MuckRock partnered to conduct a “Street Level Surveillance” initiative, via public records requests, in an effort to compile a central list that shows which police agencies throughout the country have deployed mobile biometric identification devices, as well as a set of guidelines for how they should be used and what policies are in place to protect public rights.

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