Police and ICE facial biometrics system in San Diego shut down to comply with new state law

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If proponents of the use of biometric facial recognition systems by law enforcement agencies were hoping for a big boost seven years ago when the city of San Diego began using them, they likely are very disappointed now.

Also disappointed would be anyone hoping to get statistics about how effective the program, called the Tactical Identification System (TACIDS), was in aiding law enforcement. Other than an anecdote or two, it seems that no law agency involved tracked performance statistics.

Beginning Dec. 31, the California legislature imposed a three-year ban on police use of mobile facial recognition technology in the state. The law shut down TACIDS, which had been created in 2012 without public announcement by the San Diego Association of Governments.

According to an article in Fast Company, it appears that the system was not helpful in making any arrests. This despite 65,500 images of faces being scanned into TACIDS and matched against 1.8 million mugshots collected by the San Diego County Sheriff’s office. All of the images in the program were captured with smart phones and tablets.

The system used facial recognition software from Encino, California-based biometrics company FaceFirst. Calculating the distance between a subject’s eyes as a baseline, the code looked at “unique textures and patterns in the face”, according to Fast Company, including skin color, hair and ear shape, hair, skin color—using the distance between the eyes as a baseline.

TACIDS’ use was not limited to local law enforcement agencies or even criminal prosecution.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration & Customs Enforcement, or ICE, also had access. ICE performed 309 facial-recognition scans from 2016 to 2018 using the system, but apparently tallied no more information. The U.S. Border Patrol reportedly scanned 53 faces.

And a new unit of the San Diego Police Department called the Neighborhood Policing Division, deployed TACIDS hardware to identify homeless people without formal identification in 2018.

Use by the new unit helped push face scans by the department to 8,000 in 2018, almost twice the total just two years earlier.

Reaction by top law enforcement officials has been muted, with at least one expressing little in the way of disappointment about the ban.

Opponents, however, were quick to celebrate a victory for civil liberties over new forms of biometric surveillance.

An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California quoted in the Fast Company story called recent uses of surveillance technology in California “unprecedented.” Matt Cagle, who focuses on technology for the group, said he sees a “discriminatory surveillance state” being assembled.

There is no argument that there is room for improvement. New NIST research on demographic differentials of biometric facial recognition accuracy, or ‘bias,’ says that despite significant improvement over previous research, there is still a difference in the accuracy of some algorithms in matching women and people with darker skin.

Template data recorded in TACIDS reportedly will be kept for three years for audit purposes. Also being held for three years are the names of each law enforcement user, his or her agency as well as the date and time of system access, according to the Automated Regional Justice Information System, a network of city and county agencies providing criminal justice information services to each other.

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