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Using facial recognition to activate police body cameras sparks concern


The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has published a patent application from Digital Ally for several extensions of body camera technology, including using facial recognition as a “triggering event” to automatically begin recording.

Features described in the patent document titled “Dual lens camera unit” include a multi-directional visual field and an automatic recording capability activated by receipt of a “triggering signal.” The triggering signal could be the sound of a siren or gunshot, an accelerometer reading, or a positional reading.

It could also be a match with a facial recognition system, which could enable police to record all footage captured after a suspect wanted on criminal charges is identified, or a missing person.

The technology could address problems that have emerged around the use of body cameras by police, such as a case of evidence tampering in the form of “re-creating” its discovery for the benefit of the camera, as detailed in the Atlantic, and cameras mysteriously remaining inactive during violent incidents.

Despite the potential for more consistent oversight of law enforcement officers, some civil rights advocates are concerned that automatic face scanning represents a dangerous level of public surveillance.

“Facial recognition is probably the most menacing, dangerous surveillance technology ever invented,” Woodrow Hartzog, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University, wrote in an email to the Atlantic. “We should all be extremely skeptical of having it deployed in any wearable technology, particularly in contexts [where] the surveilled are so vulnerable, such as in many contexts involving law enforcement.”

The processing power to perform constant, instantaneous facial recognition is beyond current body camera technology, but may be available by the fall, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

The patent also refers to the use of police biometrics, such as officer heart beat, to activate the camera when officers are under stress.

The Atlantic reports that auto-record features are currently used by some police body cameras, but in a police shooting in Minneapolis in 2017 in which two responding officers wore cameras equipped with Axon Signal, which is supposed to automatically record footage in the event of a shooting, neither camera captured any footage.

Axon CEO Rick Smith said in August that facial recognition technology is not yet accurate enough for body camera use, but the Journal also reported earlier in the year that facial recognition provider Kairos declined to enter into a partnership with Axon.

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