The ACLU-WA and Seattle’s Booking Photo Comparison Software

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The ACLU has long been concerned about the use of facial recognition systems and the broad fishing expeditions for which they can be used.  That’s why the ACLU of Washington worked hard to change the Seattle Police Department’s proposed policy for the Booking Photo Comparison Software (BPCS).

When we learned of the proposed policy, we objected because it allowed the use of facial recognition software for people who were not suspected of wrongdoing.  We asked Seattle to change the proposal and limit the use of BPCS to criminal suspects. We thought it was wrong to use the BPCS on people who weren’t suspected of any wrongdoing, possibly leading those innocent people into unwanted entanglement with law enforcement. The same concerns do not exist with people reasonably suspected of criminal activity; it is law enforcement’s function to try to identify suspects.

So we were pleased when Seattle officials modified the policy. We are not opposing the policy as it is currently proposed.  Two key aspects of the system and the policy for its use make BPCS different from the vast majority of other proposed and implemented facial recognition systems: The system won’t generate any new images, and it will only be used to identify people already reasonably suspected of criminal activity.

In the typical use of facial recognition, people are scanned in a crowd, and their pictures compared to a watch list (e.g., suspected terrorists or wanted fugitives). In other words, entirely innocent people going about their daily lives are subjected to scrutiny, and possible ill consequences, simply by virtue of looking too similar to a person suspected of wrongdoing (at least as far as the computer is concerned). The unacceptable fishing expedition is made even worse by the shortcomings of facial recognition.

BPCS, on the other hand, would involve a situation where a picture of a suspected criminal, such as a burglar or convenience store robber, was taken by a surveillance camera. The police then want to identify the person in the picture, to further investigate his or her involvement in the crime. This identification of a criminal suspect is an appropriate law enforcement function. In other words, rather than starting by capturing pictures of a multitude of people hoping to find a few wrongdoers, BPCS starts with a picture of someone who is already reasonably believed to be involved in criminal activity.

This limitation is essential. With it in place, we do not believe BPCS will infringe on people’s civil liberties.  We do not oppose use of technology so long as privacy and civil liberties are protected. Of course, we will be watching closely to see how BPCS is implemented.  If its use does not follow the policy or the use policy changes in the future, our position will likely change as well.