California County Sheriff Tried Out Facial Recognition Tools

The Kern County, Calif., Sheriff's Office was among hundreds of law enforcement agencies nationwide that piloted the use of a controversial facial recognition tool that has been heavily marketed to policing agencies.

An abstract image of facial recognition being used on a crowd.
Shutterstock/varuna
(TNS) — The Kern County Sheriff's Office was among hundreds of law enforcement agencies nationwide that piloted the use of a controversial facial recognition tool that has been heavily marketed to policing agencies, according to a national news outlet report published last week.

BuzzFeed News, an online news outlet, published a database of hundreds of U.S. law enforcement agencies that conducted searches using an artificial intelligence program made by the company Clearview AI.

Facial recognition tools can allow law enforcement or other entities to match photos and video of a suspect or victim with images that have been culled from a variety of sources, including government sources like driver's license records and also social media and the Internet. But the use of facial recognition in policing is controversial because it is seen as a breach of privacy by some and critics say it is unreliable and could lead to faulty arrests. In particular, studies have found the technology to be less accurate in identifying people of color.

Reached Friday, Sheriff Donny Youngblood and KCSO chief deputy Larry McCurtain said that facial recognition is not used by the department but a program was tested by two deputies who were offered a free trial at a training they attended in late 2019.

"We don't have the software. We're not using it and we don't have any intent of using it," McCurtain said.

BuzzFeed News sent public records requests to every agency that had used the program, the report said. The Kern County Sheriff's Office civil litigation coordinator wrote the following in her response to BuzzFeed News.

"The KCSO does not have or use Clearview AI...It was only used during a 60-day free trial. The two investigators that used this product during the free trial made between 30-40 inquiries combined. None of their searches were successful and no arrests were made from the use of this software."

Neither the Bakersfield Police Department, nor any other Kern County police agency, showed up as having used the technology. BPD doesn't use facial recognition technology, spokesman Sgt. Robert Pair said by email.

"We are not using any facial recognition tools and have no plans to do so," Pair said.

Youngblood said he favors any tool that can help his agency solve crime but he also acknowledged there are concerns.

"If it benefited us, I'd be all over it, I'd be 100 percent supportive of it," Youngblood said. "But there's a downside to it as well from what I understand."

ACLU of Southern California staff attorney Stephanie Padilla said facial recognition technology "raises a whole host of grave concerns over privacy rights and civil liberties."

"It ends privacy in the way we've known privacy for many years. It gives law enforcement and the government this unprecedented power to spy on us and use this information to identify folks."

She pointed to a 2018 report by the ACLU that found Amazon's facial recognition falsely matched 28 members of U.S. Congress with arrest photos in its database.

Recent studies by the federal government and MIT have found facial recognition systems have much lower accuracy rates in identifying female and dark-skinned faces than the white male faces. The MIT study found major differences in accuracy among three major facial recognition systems in determining a person's gender depending on whether they were white or Black. The error rate for determining a white male's gender was less than 1 percent, the study found, but as high as 34 percent for Black women.

Government use of the technology has been banned in some cities, including San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley.

Padilla of the ACLU said the technology also creates a slippery slope to further eroding privacy if combined with other existing technologies. For example, she pointed to Amazon's Ring doorbell camera, which is used by some law enforcement agencies to identify or obtain images of suspects. In fact, the Kern County Sheriff's Office recently partnered with the city of Wasco to provide rebates to residents who install a Ring system and register it with KCSO.

If Amazon integrates its facial recognition tools into the Ring camera system — as it has publicly stated it may do — Padilla says it could further erode privacy.

"That's really problematic because the ring cameras capture every sort of interaction: people walking around the block, your postal service person, food delivery service or children playing," Padilla said. "It's all people who have not consented to having their every move and face surveilled."

The Kern County Sheriff's Office allows anyone with a camera or video surveillance system to register it with the department.

KCSO's website says: "The information will help deputies contact you quickly and identify suspects in your neighborhood. The goals of the program are to reduce crime, to assist law enforcement with investigations, and to increase public safety."

(c)2021 The Bakersfield Californian, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.