Driver’s license photos increasingly used by U.S. police for identification with facial recognition

Police in Hagerstown, Maryland have arrested a robbery suspect identified by comparing a photo from Instagram to the State’s database of driver’s license photos, the Wall Street Journal reports.

A robbery victim was able to visually identify a man who allegedly robbed her apartment, and she was able to provide police with the suspect’s first name, but no further information on his identity. She informed police that she had interacted with him on Instagram, which gave the police a facial image to compare against the database. The Maryland Image Repository System matched the image with the driver’s license photo of a man with the same first name, who was subsequently arrested.

There are currently 31 states that allow law enforcement to search driver’s license image databases, in addition to mug shots, for matches with facial recognition software, the Center on Privacy and Technology at the Georgetown University Law Center says. The Center reported in 2016 that there were facial images of 117 million U.S. adults in the country’s law enforcement databases.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas County, Florida, who launched a facial recognition system which is now used by other departments in Florida, told the Journal that the process is the same as it was previously, except that now it is automated. Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Jennifer Lynch, however, said that having a photo taken for a driver’s license should not make an individual a suspect in a criminal investigation, and said there should be more checks and balances to mitigate the risk of misidentifying subjects. Research has shown that leading facial recognition systems have significantly different accuracy in identifying people from different demographics, leading the Subcommittee on Information Technology of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to examine the implications in hearings earlier this year on artificial intelligence adoption.

Washington County Deputy State Attorney Joseph Michael said that facial recognition is a valuable tool for police, but cannot be the only source of identification. “You still need a positive identification, as happened in this case,” he said. He also said that while he understands privacy concerns, “the expectation of privacy ends when you sit down and smile at the government desk.”

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