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Florida Police Embrace Facial Recognition Despite Pushback

While companies and governments are halting the use of facial recognition technology, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is refusing to comply until official regulations are put in place.

Tampa Bay, Florida
National moves against facial recognition won�t mean much in Tampa Bay area. Pictured are Jacob Ruberto, biometric operations analyst with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri demonstrating the use of the agency's facial recognition database in February. [Douglas R. Clifford | Times]
(TNS) — Protests over police violence against Black communities put a spotlight on some of the tools law enforcement uses to protect and serve. Most recently, that focus centered on surveillance technology.

Lawmakers introduced a bill Thursday that would ban federal spending on facial recognition. Boston voted Wednesday to ban facial recognition within the city. Earlier this month, Amazon and Microsoft announced plans to limit police use of their facial recognition technology, while IBM said it will abandon the facial recognition business altogether.

“Facial recognition technology doesn’t just pose a grave threat to our privacy, it physically endangers Black Americans and other minority populations in our country,” said Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., one of the bill’s sponsors, in a Thursday release.

The efforts, for now, won’t mean much for police-held facial recognition systems in the Tampa Bay area.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office manages one of the longest-running facial recognition tools in the country. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said his agency doesn’t plan to change its use, and would not consider pausing until regulations are put in place.

“The moves are political and profit-driven” to appease their customers, Gualtieri said of the companies’ announcements. “Each company fully supports the use of facial recognition for its own purposes and has supported law enforcement’s use until it became unpopular not to.”

Facial recognition works by comparing a photo of someone against an existing database of photos. Pinellas County’s Face Analysis Comparison and Examination System, for example, has 38 million images consisting of driver’s license, mugshot and identification card photos.

The technology became a commonly used policing tool over the past two decades, even as it drew concern from privacy and civil rights advocates over the technology’s invasiveness, potential for misidentification and use in surveillance, particularly of Black and brown communities.

“Face recognition technology gives governments the unprecedented power to spy on us wherever we go,” Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said in a statement.

Amazon, which works closely with law enforcement agencies around the country, sells a facial recognition system called Rekognition. It announced a one-year moratorium on police use of its facial recognition system this month, but didn’t say whether that included federal agencies.

Microsoft previously marketed its facial recognition technology to the Drug Enforcement Administration. It said this month that it wouldn’t sell to local police departments and hadn’t previously.

Facial recognition matching algorithms typically work best when a photo is well-lit and taken straight-on, such as on a driver’s license photo. They often have issues accurately identifying people with darker skin tones.

“Studies still show that the technology performs differently — and may be more prone to error — on darker faces,” said Clare Garvie, senior associate at Georgetown University Law Center’s Center on Privacy and Technology.

This was the case in a January Michigan incident detailed this week by the New York Times. A facial recognition system used by police there falsely identified an innocent Black man as the perpetrator of a crime, leading to his arrest. While the case was dismissed “without prejudice,” meaning he could be charged again at a later date, it prompted this week’s federal legislation calling for a ban on federal funding used to procure this kind of technology by local law enforcement.

As protesters took to the streets in opposition of police treatment of Black communities nationwide, privacy advocates have raised concerns that the technology could potentially be used to identify people speaking out peacefully.

Pinellas County has not, Gualtieri said, used the database in relation to any of the recent protests. The Tampa Police Department hasn’t requested to use Pinellas County’s database for protests, spokeswoman Jamel Lanee said.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said it used facial recognition to identify a felony burglary suspect from footage a business provided of a protest, but did not use any facial recognition during the protests themselves.

“We have not used facial recognition software to identify anyone peacefully protesting,” spokeswoman Natalia Verdina said.

Surveilling protesters was a chief concern earlier this year when a private company called Clearview AI came under fire for selling what it described as a real-time facial recognition system to law enforcement that was more accurate than competitors. About 12 Florida agencies tested the technology, the Tampa Bay Times found.

Tampa Police Department is still participating in a free trial of Clearview according to Lanee. It has not used it at any protests.

©2020 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.