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Facial recognition mostly used by Washington County police to investigate minor crimes

Police with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) have cracked a $12 shoplifting case using state-of-the-art biometric facial recognition, CNET reports. To be fair, they have also used the technology to investigate a number of other crimes, but the predominance of misdemeanors and identifications that could be made in other ways could potentially undercut arguments about the importance of the technology to some law enforcement agencies

Washington County police began using Amazon facial recognition, and pays about $6 a month for web services, after a $400 setup charge. The WCSO’s annual audit of its Rekognition use shows 152 different users made 1,004 facial recognition queries with the system last year.

Washington County Public Information Officer Deputy Jeff Talbot says the technology has been used to make arrests in investigations into different levels of crime, including more serious offences. He also says that the department has internal policies and training practices, which have been shared with elected officials and are open to the public (PDF).“Are we solving 500 crimes a year using this technology? Absolutely not,” Talbot says. “But do we think this is an important piece of technology that we should be utilizing while doing it responsibly? Absolutely.”

The WCSO policy includes a clause allowing real-time surveillance in very specific circumstances relating to terrorism, but a representative of the force says the capability is not available at this time.

CNET published a slide from a training presentation used by the force, which demonstrates the necessity of human interpretation by showing a match with 93.5 percent certainty between an image of O.J. Simpson and a white male with a mustache. WCSO policy allows facial recognition to be used for investigation, but not as evidence, and not as the sole basis for an arrest.The WCSO system has been used to identify suspects in shoplifting, bike theft, and trespassing cases, including a woman who drove away from a gas station without paying for $12 worth of gas.

“The investigation of petty crimes does not justify the creation of a massive facial recognition database like this one,” says Matt Cagle, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California.
CNET and the ACLU have reported that several police agencies have contacted the WCSO to ask about its use of facial recognition, and the neighboring Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office has begun testing its own system.
Amazon stepped into the public discourse about responsible use of facial biometrics technology and national legislation imposing limits on the technology in February after being repeated criticized for marketing Rekognition to law enforcement.