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Michigan Governor Plans to Upgrade Facial Recognition

The state police receive photos people take for their driver's licenses without notification, and now have a massive database of face photos containing pictures numbering many times the number of residents in the state.

(TNS) — If a Michigan resident has never been arrested, it’s highly unlikely their fingerprints are on file with the Michigan State Police.

But if they've ever gotten a Michigan driver’s license or a state ID card, it’s almost certain the State Police has their mug shot.

The MSP photo database may even contain their Facebook profile photo or another social media image, if police obtained that photo in connection with a criminal investigation, even if the person was never charged.

There are only about 8 million adults in Michigan, but there are nearly 50 million facial images in the MSP’s Statewide Network of Agency Photos (SNAP), with 2.7 million photos added to the database last year alone.

Though the MSP didn't start using facial recognition technology until 2001, the Secretary of State's Office has been giving State Police all its digital photos — without notice to motorists — since 1998.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 2020 budget, presented to state lawmakers March 5, gives State Police more than half a million dollars to enhance the facial recognition search functions of the growing database.

The proposal for increased funding comes just as a proliferation of public and private security cameras and advances in facial recognition software are elevating concerns about privacy issues and the potential for false identification of criminal suspects through computer matching of facial images.

"Most people are under the impression that if they don't do anything wrong, there's no reason for the police to interact with them," said Eric Williams, a Detroit civil rights attorney and a cooperating attorney with the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

"This kind of eliminates that because you're already potentially a suspect if you have a driver's license, or a state ID. That should frighten people."

Last year, the ACLU of California said it tested Amazon's facial recognition tool, called "Rekognition," with photos of 535 members of Congress, and found the software falsely matched 28 of them with people who had been arrested on criminal charges. The software gave false matches for 39 percent of minority members, who make up 20 percent of Congress, The Hill reported.

Amazon's Rekognition is reportedly used by some U.S. law enforcement agencies, though not the MSP. But groups such as the ACLU have similar concerns about all facial recognition technology.

Shanon Banner, a spokeswoman for the MSP, said in an email all of the agency's facial examiners are trained by the FBI and any matches between suspect photos and database photos "only provide 'investigative leads' back to the investigating agencies." She said the photos "are never considered to be positive identification and require further investigation before probable cause for an arrest can be determined."

Facial recognition software uses algorithms — ways of identifying and comparing various facial features — to match photos in a database with images of criminal suspects. The State Police website says the database also "allows for the completion of digital lineups that meet the best practice standards for eyewitness identification and facial recognition."

Whitmer's 2020 budget includes $562,500 to improve the searching capabilities of the system, according to budget documents.

"This project would replace the six-year-old algorithm used to search" the database, Banner said. "The newer algorithm will increase the speed and accuracy of facial recognition searches in support of criminal investigations."

If you're surprised to learn your driver's license photo is in a State Police database and don't recall being notified when you had your picture taken at a Secretary of State branch office, that's because you weren't.

"The Secretary of State’s Office is required by law," under a 1998 amendment to the Michigan Vehicle Code, "to share these images with law enforcement," and there is no notice given and no opt-out provision, said Shawn Starkey, a spokesman for the agency.

But the lack of notice may change as a result of Friday's inquiry from the Free Press.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson believes "it’s important for Michiganders to be aware of our legal requirement to share data, including photos, with law enforcement," Starkey said. "She is exploring ways to ensure residents are meaningfully informed about this requirement when they receive their license or state ID."

The MSP also gets digital images from mug shots taken by local police in Michigan and from the Michigan Department of Corrections, Banner said.

And the database also contains a smaller number of images obtained from other sources, such as social media, she said.

"Similar to when an investigator has a ... fingerprint from a crime scene, an investigator may bring a suspect image taken from a variety of sources (social media, security camera, etc.) to search against the images in the SNAP to identify an investigative lead," Banner said.

"Like a fingerprint, when a probe image does not result in a match, it can be stored for future searches," she said.

Banner couldn't say Friday how many social media photos or other "probe images" are in the database, but she said the capability to save those images has only existed for a couple of years, and officials guess there might be fewer than 100 such images.

Michigan is also one of at least 16 states that allow the FBI to search its database of driver's license photos, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Concerns about facial recognition technology include the computers identifying false positive matches, particularly with members of certainly minority groups.

"it's been documented time and time again that facial recognition technology is less accurate for people of color — particularly women of color — than it is for white men," said Williams.

Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Michigan, said another concern is that "we know from history that government agents use surveillance tools to not just go after dangerous criminals, but to monitor who is attending protests and where documented and undocumented immigrants spend their time, which include churches and schools and other sensitive areas."

Civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. "was the target of massive FBI surveillance, under what was then the latest state-of-the-art technology," Korobkin said.

But Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police and retired chief of the Livonia Police Department, said he believes most Michiganders trust the police to use facial recognition software and other technology responsibly and in line with constitutional requirements.

"We've evolved in the last 50 years, as a country, and as police agencies," Stevenson said.

"Unfortunately, in the world that we live in, there are bad people and they do bad things," he said. "I think the constitutional safeguards are there."

In Detroit, concerns have been expressed about the recent integration of facial recognition software with the Project Green Light video crime monitoring program, run by the Detroit Police Department. Officials say its use will be restricted to investigating violent crimes.

Williams said Detroit officials did not say where they get their photo data in response to a Michigan Freedom of Information Act request, but he believes Project Green Light uses the MSP facial images database.

Though controversial, police use of facial recognition technology has been credited with some successes.

According to national media reports, it was used to help identify Jarrod Warren Ramos, the man who killed four journalists and one newspaper sales associate in a shooting spree at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, last June.

Asked to cite a couple of Michigan incidents in which the technology was used to solve significant crimes, Banner said MSP's "facial examiners are only one component of the investigative process," similar to fingerprint examiners, "and are rarely informed of the disposition of the cases for which they provide assistance."

The Traverse City Record-Eagle reported in 2016 that the MSP and FBI used facial recognition technology to assist the Leelanau County Sheriff's Office in arresting an Interlochen man who unlawfully drove away with an automobile after a theft at a Glen Arbor tavern.

©2019 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.