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Wolfcom Embraces Body Cam Face Recognition Despite Concerns

Vendors, public officials and civil rights advocates have been wary of using facial recognition in police body cameras because of technical limits and potential for abuse, but Wolfcom's CEO sees it as an inevitability.

Black man's face being scanned by facial recognition technology.
Even as it becomes ubiquitous in consumer tech, facial recognition has been increasingly verboten in the marketplace for police body cameras. Last June, Axon, the nation’s largest body-cam provider, took the advice of its ethics advisory board and agreed not to put facial recognition software in its cameras, nor produce face-matching technology for the foreseeable future. In October, the state of California passed a law forbidding its police departments from using body cameras with facial recognition software.

This has not dissuaded Wolfcom, a police and security-tech vendor, from developing one.

Wolfcom CEO Peter Onruang told Government Technology this week that his company is still in the development phase with a body camera that will include facial recognition software. Axon’s ethics board distrusted the technology in part because of the potential for false identification, racial disparities in accuracy and the potential for abuse by overbearing governments, but Onruang didn’t find these concerns prohibitive. He said he’s not blind to the technology’s potential for misuse, but he views it with a sense of inevitability.

“I believe that facial recognition is evil, a terrible thing, until the day your daughter gets kidnapped and there’s an Amber Alert. Then it’s the best thing in the world,” he said. “People are always afraid of something new, but there’s no stopping technology. We can either ignore it and other people develop it, or we can understand it’s here to stay … and try to steer its path toward the force of good.”

Onruang said Wolfcom started in 2001 as a security and surveillance company, producing hidden cameras, CCTV and spy cameras for private investigators. According to Medium publication OneZero, which first reported that Wolfcom was using facial recognition, Wolfcom launched under the name Asianwolf. The name still appears in the titles and descriptions of Wolfcom’s YouTube videos.

Onruang said he was studying to become a police officer before he started the company, but the events of Sept. 11, 2001, made him realize that what he really wanted to do was make products for police and the military. To accumulate experience in audiovisual technology, he started his own CCTV business. He said by 2008, his work in security and surveillance had led him to thinking about the potential for controversial police shootings and riots, which led him to unveiling a body camera at the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference on Oct. 13, 2011.

Onruang said he remembers the date well, because it was, in his estimation, the birth of the body camera: competitors Axon (called Taser at the time) and VieVu brought theirs to the show as well. Onruang remembers his camera as being “lightyears ahead” of others at the time, having 32 gigabytes of storage, 1080p resolution, GPS, night vision, a voice recorder, a radio speaker mic and an LCD screen on the back of the camera for playback.

Within months, Onruang said, he was doing presentations for police departments across the country, as were his competitors. He said Wolfcom has sold body cameras and other related technology to more than 1,500 agencies in the U.S., plus other clients in 35 countries, all of it developed in-house.

Regarding the controversy of putting facial recognition in cameras that go everywhere officers do, Onruang is neither dismissive nor persuaded. He said he grew up reading George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 and shares people’s fears of Big Brother-like surveillance, but he thinks some of these concerns are overblown. His thoughts on the subject focused on the potential for live, real-time facial recognition to help officers catch suspects or find missing people.

“I know there are fears out there that people will get shot for facial recognition. That’s not what it will be designed for … It’s only meant to help an officer realize there’s a possibility (they’re interacting with a wanted or missing person),” he said. “I propose it as a tool to give an officer a second look at a person he just passed by or is talking to, but not enough to draw a weapon.”

It's unclear what databases the camera would access to identify faces. Onruang said the cameras could either apply the facial recognition algorithms themselves or connect with another system that would run the algorithms. In an online demonstration video shared by the company, Wolfcom’s Halo camera is paired with a computer with facial recognition that automatically identifies the faces of three volunteers, flagging them as a missing person and two wanted persons with specific warrants.

OneZero reported that Wolfcom has already started beta testing Halo cameras with Los Lunas Police Department in New Mexico, and a police lieutenant told OneZero that the cameras connect to an app that does the face matching.

Asked how he might go about developing this camera in a way that would mitigate people’s concerns, Onruang was vague. He talked about being careful, then said he intends to test the product and use resulting data to inform ways to make the software less invasive of people’s privacy.

Onruang was not ready to say when the Halo camera would be announced, but he teased another product launch later this month: the Wolfcom Commander 4G LTE smart body camera, which will allow officers to livestream their GPS coordinates and video footage to dispatch and fellow officers.

Earlier this month, Onruang said, Wolfcom also started work with the U.S. Department of Defense developing what will be the first American-made, military-grade body camera system for the entire DoD.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional information about how the cameras process images.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.