August 13, 2015 | By Dave Maass

San Diego’s Facial Recognition Program Shows Why We Need Records on Police Use of Mobile Biometric Technology

The New York Times has a story out on how San Diego police use mobile facial recognition devices in the field, including potentially on non-consenting residents who aren’t suspected of a crime.  One account from a retired firefighter is especially alarming:

Stopped by the police after a dispute with a man he said was a prowler, he was ordered to sit on a curb, he said, while officers took his photo with an iPad and ran it through the same facial recognition software. The officers also used a cotton swab to collect a DNA sample from the inside of his cheek…

 “I was thinking, ‘Why are you taking pictures of me, doing this to me?’ ” said Mr. Hanson, 58, who has no criminal record. “I felt like my identity was being stolen. I’m a straight-up, no lie, cheat or steal guy, and I get treated like a criminal.”

The story confirms concerns EFF raised two years ago, when we obtained a stack of records from the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) about the regional facial recognition program it manages called “Tactical Identification System” or TACIDS, for short. Under a federally funded pilot program, law enforcement agencies around San Diego County were provided with smartphones that could run photos taken in the field against the sheriff’s mugshot database. Although the draft policy called for police to obtain consent before taking a photo, anecdotal testimony indicated that officers may be using it on certain people simply because their “spidy senses” [sic] were tingling. The latest version of the policy, which was finalized in February 2015 [PDF], does not even mention the issue of consent, saying that police should primarily use it when they believe someone who is lawfully detained is being deceptive or evasive about their identity. 

On Twitter, San Diego Police Department immediately challenged many elements reported by the New York Times, which in turn updated the piece with some corrections. However, there is one way to get the facts: SDPD can move quickly to respond to a public records request filed last week for a long list of documents associated with this program.

San Diego’s facial recognition system is one of many programs around the country that we are targeting through a crowd-sourced information-gathering endeavor. As part of EFF’s new Street Level Surveillance project, EFF has teamed up with MuckRock to file public records requests around the country regarding law enforcement use of mobile biometric technology, including face recognition, fingerprint analysis, iris scanning, Rapid DNA, and tattoo identification.

We are in the process of submitting more than 200 requests around the country with agencies nominated by our supporters, including several in San Diego County. We have already received records from two agencies elsewhere in the country:

San Jose Police Department

In 2008, the San Jose Police Department signed a $961,000 contract with 3i Infotech to develop a  mobile identification technology system that would include fingerprint analysis and mugshot database searches. Two purchase orders show that SJPD paid another company, Mobizent, $195,000 for 22 mobile fingerprinting devices in 2010-2011.

Denver Police Department

Denver police provided us with a report [PDF] dated February 2015 that provides an overview of a mobile fingerprinting pilot project. According to the report, the technology worked with 99% accuracy, provided verification in under 30 seconds, and police only required an hour of training to become proficient with the devices. “Officers firmly stated they did not want us to take the readers away from them,” the said report sand and listed several case studies in which police were able to identify gang members, car thieves, and a sex offender.

Denver’s policies, as of 2014, state that if a person has not been arrested or otherwise lawfully detained, police need to obtain consent before using the fingerprint reader. The policies also forbid use in “random or general investigative or intelligence gathering,” or during the issuance of a civil marijuana citation. Police are also not allowed to use the technology on people they believe to be juveniles.

We’re filing new requests every day and expect responsive documents (and request rejections) to steadily stream in over the next few weeks. You can still nominate an agency through our online form, file your own request, or follow requests already being processed through MuckRock’s page.


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