back to article Meanwhile, in America: Half of adults' faces are in police databases

Images representing 117 million American adults – almost half the grownups in the country – can be found in the facial recognition databases maintained by US law enforcement agencies, according to a study conducted by the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law School. That figure is expected to grow as facial …

  1. Oh Homer
    Childcatcher

    Only half?

    Not sure how the Yanks stand with photographic ID systems, but over on this side of the pond pretty much anyone with a passport and/or driving license has their mugshot on record.

    Then there's SSSC registration and PVG checks for anyone who works in healthcare and social services, which again requires a photo ID.

    Naturally anyone who's ever been arrested is also on file. In fact, just attending any sort of protest rally is guaranteed to get your entire life's history recorded in a police database.

    Anyone not covered up to this point is probably still on some other system, even if it's only an OAP bus pass.

    The vast number of CCTV systems in Blighty basically guarantees that "the system" has your mug on record, one way or another, unless you've lived your whole life in a cave, and the legal protection, that is supposed to prevent unfettered government access to that data, is little more than a farce designed to pacify the masses and stop them whining too much, as has been demonstrated countless times (stolen laptops containing vast government databases, council workers using "anti-terrorism" legislation to spy on parents who they claim enrol their children at the "wrong" school, ad nauseam).

    In short, we're not only worrying about something we have no democratic means of preventing (since neither the US nor the UK are even remotely democratic), but something that has already happened, indeed it happened a long time ago.

    The question is, what are we going to do about it, if anything?

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Only half?

      Actually, we're similar in many ways. Driver's license photos are on file in every state with the LEA's having access to them. LEA CCTV is not as pervasive yet, but it's getting there as they add cameras to cars, use photo/radar for speed and traffic control, etc.

      Protest or even support rallies have been fodder for the LEA's since around the mid-60's and is pretty much standard procedure. Go into or pass by any governmental office, there's cameras.

      The thing is, we don't even realize that it's as bad as it is... it just happened.

    2. Cuddles Silver badge

      Re: Only half?

      "Not sure how the Yanks stand with photographic ID systems, but over on this side of the pond pretty much anyone with a passport and/or driving license has their mugshot on record."

      The important word is "police". Yes, pretty much everyone in the UK has at least one photo of them on record somewhere, but that's not at all the same thing as having their photo in a specific police database. The vast number of CCTV systems in Blighty guarantees that such images are not stored in any central database, because that's the very definition of "closed circuit". Pictures on driving licenses are stored by the DVLA which has no connection to the police, and the same is true for almost all other things that require a photo. The police may be able to get access to such photos, but only as part of an actual investigation not to simply trawl through as a matter of routine*.

      We certaainly seem to be heading in that direction, but so far we don't have anything like a legal, official police database of faces that can be searched for matches on a routine basis. Citing a variety of disparate, unconnected worries about CCTV and driving licenses certainly doesn't support the existence of such a database. And of course, it's worth bearing in mind that the police and intelligence services have been quoted several times saying they don't actually want all these giant centralised databases - the people who actually do the work know that when you're looking for a needle in a haystack, collecting 100 times more hay really doesn't help matters. It's mostly just a few people at the top who are obsessed with bulk data regardless of what both those doing the surveillance and those being surveilled actually think.

      *What intelligence services get up to is, of course, a rather different matter.

    3. Captain DaFt

      Re: Only half?

      Yes, exactly half.

      Actually, everybody's face is in the data bank, but only the left side of the face.

      It's the sinister side. Got to keep an eye on that!

    4. Matt Bryant Silver badge
      FAIL

      Re: Oh Homer Re: Only half?

      "......just attending any sort of protest rally is guaranteed to get your entire life's history recorded in a police database.....The question is, what are we going to do about it, if anything?" I suggest you start by loosening up the tinfoil. Alternatively, seeing as it seems the foil already has a death grip on you, you could cut yourself off from the Internet, destroy your mobile phone and all credit cards, and retreat to your bunker (more bandwidth for the rest of us that way).

    5. joed

      Re: Only half?

      so the crime problem has been resolved in UK, right?

    6. tom dial Silver badge

      Re: Only half?

      I wonder, if the US and UK are not "even remotely democratic" which nation states are. That is a fairly strong statement that runs contrary to conventional understanding and warrants a bit of substantiating evidence.

      I stipulate that the US federal government is not a democracy, and was not intended to be; the authors of the Constitution took considerable care to prevent that, for reasons discussed at some length in the Federalist Papers. They did not, however, constrain state government in any way to prevent them from establishing democratic regimes of their own.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    FAIL

    And when it seriously goes wrong?

    Techdirt had piece on this which is relevant: FBI Facial Recognition Expert Helps Denver PD Arrest Wrong Man Twice For The Same Crime.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: And when it seriously goes wrong?

      Wow, I hope he successfully sued the Denver PD for $10 million and they fired all the cops involved in that arrest!

      1. Nolveys

        Re: And when it seriously goes wrong?

        Maybe the $10 million could happen, but the cops will keep their jobs.

        I need to make the transition to purely online work, then I can start working on my Cousin It hair.

      2. Gray
        Holmes

        Re: And when it seriously goes wrong?

        The police union will assure that the cops keep their jobs; the $10 million will come from the public budget, thus punishing the taxpayers; and the complainant will be ear-marked for further tracking and investigation as a confirmed "anti-government" trouble-maker.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: And when it seriously goes wrong?

          the $10 million will come from the public budget

          And the public will demand that the city stop doing what got them sued.

          1. Gray
            Holmes

            Re: And when it seriously goes wrong?

            "And the public will demand that the city stop doing what got them sued."

            Ahhhh, America! If (and that's a big "if") the Denver public rises up and demands that the city stop doing what got them sued, the Police Union will rise up with a counter-suit to block/weaken/delay/obfuscate any Denver city administration action. While that plays out, a citizen's group will file suit and the city's insurance coverage will be called to pay legal expenses as they mount, and a thirty percent insurance premium increase will be paid by next year's taxpayers' city property tax increases.

            Assuming the victim of police brutality arrest is awarded a $10 million judgment, the City of Denver's insurance carrier will file a counter-suit to avoid covering the liability, and legal fees will further soar. In either instance (the insurer pays the city damages, or not) another thirty percent city liability insurance premium boost will be demanded.

            Meanwhile, individual officers remain at home under full pay while investigations plod along; legal fees mount; the police brutality arrest victim languishes while waiting a court settlement while $600/hour legal fees, or the forty percent lawyer contingency share hangs fire, and the Denver voting public is stone-walled by non-cooperative city officials under advice of the city attorneys.

            Justice in America: slow, imponderable, and impartial equitable: everyone is entitled to all they can afford .

            1. ecofeco Silver badge

              Re: And when it seriously goes wrong?

              Gray has written a very accurate description of the process.

    2. Christoph

      Re: And when it seriously goes wrong?

      He was lucky. He actually got to trial and had enough evidence to prove his innocence.

      If he hadn't had that, he would have been offered a plea bargain. Confess and do decades of prison, or get a sentence longer that his possible lifetime.

    3. tom dial Silver badge

      Re: And when it seriously goes wrong?

      Those who bothered to follow the link (and the further link to The Intercept) and actually read either article will have found that Talley's ex-wife, three acquaintances, and the teller he was accused of robbing in the second case identified him, presumably based on bank surveillance photographs. They also would have noticed that the FBI facial recognition specialist, based on personal examination of photographs found a likely match between the surveillance photos and others probably taken under better conditions. Those certainly would have been enough to justify an arrest, and quite possibly and indictment and trial. The fact that the only witness changed and augmented her statements during trial testimony does not alter that.

      Talley may well have a good case against the arresting police for grossly excessive force, and possibly also for later procedural errors. He might also have cause for action against his public defender in the first case for slackness in checking with his employer as to his stated alibi, which brought him a two month jail stay.

      What the articles do not do is implicate machine facial recognition, which was not used. Indeed, the Intercept article suggests, with reservations, that it is likely to improve the results that can be obtained by human analysts alone.

  3. Julian Bond

    Illegal Aliens

    And then there's all the aliens having their picture taken as they pass through passport control. I wonder what proportion of the world's population is on the US facial recognition database.

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Illegal Aliens

      I know I am. I doubt how useful the picture is though. I had just arrived completely nackered after being crammed in an economy class seat for 9 hours on a very early morning flight into JFK. I'm sure my painful grimase will be useful to identify me in the future...

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It will fix itself

    I give it 5 years before the database is in criminal hands, 10 and it's public. Once the criminals are known to be targetting cops' families using this tech it will get sorted out.

    1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

      Re: It will fix itself

      Not cop's families... unfortunately it's more likely to be fixed if/when judges or politician's families (and in particular business acquaintances) are targetted by criminals.

      However Ms Stasi May is way ahead on this front because her plan to spy on everybody (only scuppered by those evil communist hippies in the EU) already had the provision to spy on everyone except certain individuals... individuals such as politicians, their business acquaintances and whatever trash they define as "celebrities".

    2. Syntax Error

      Re: It will fix itself

      It would be funny if it identifies people who are in fact recorded dead.

      1. Matt Bryant Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: Syntax Error Re: It will fix itself

        "It would be funny if it identifies people who are in fact recorded dead." They just cross-check against the Democrat voter registration database to weed out the dead people.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    only half

    cause it's the infancy stage. Give it another 3 - 4 years, and you're all done. How, when, why, on what legal grounds? F... you, we've got your mug and what are you gonna do about it, citizen 1294535A3?! PLUS, I see you're a bit off the average with your recent internet habits, AND trying, TWICE to use a VPN, I see! May I ask you to step out of your vehicle, SIR!

  6. smartypants

    Only half?

    Compare that with Facebook where almost everyone is in there, even people who don't want to be, thanks to people that know you helpfully identifying you in every picture they take.

    It's just a matter of time before this database ends up in the wrong hands, if not already!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Only half?

      Facebook is the wrong hands...

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Only half?

      "Compare that with Facebook "

      Exactly. Also, compare with the stories about photographers being harassed for legally taking photos in public places. Images collected by CCTV in public places are all legal too.

      If, *and that's a HUUUUge if) there was a sudden outcry over this, you can be sure the knee-jerk reaction and subsequent legislation would affect anyone taking a photo in a public place that includes strangers in the shot.

      <tinfoil hat mode>Of course, this might well be the actual plan within in the plan. Mandatory registration and licensing of all cameras and photographers and enhanced DBS checks for all involved</tinfoil hat mode>

  7. ratfox
    Unhappy

    I'm pessimistic

    I believe that "technology cannot be stopped". It will eventually be so easy to scan and identify people that almost anybody will be able to build a fairly comprehensive database of everybody's face.

    With internet, the world is becoming a global village — and like in any village, everybody knows who you are and what you are doing, you have no anonymity, and it's impossible to hide.

    1. Teiwaz

      Re: I'm pessimistic

      With internet, the world is becoming a global village — and like in any village, everybody knows who you are and what you are doing, you have no anonymity, and it's impossible to hide.

      Everybody will know who you are and what you are doing...And I bet the occasional dangerous lunatic will still be identified and then forgotten about due to bureaucratic bungling - then used as an excuse for the next round of 'let's build a dystopic society'.

      The decline of this civilisation (like Rome) cannot come soon enough - maybe the next one will finally get it right eventually.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Alien

        Re: I'm pessimistic

        "The decline of this civilisation (like Rome) cannot come soon enough - maybe the next one will finally get it right eventually."

        But who will be the barbarians at the gates of our global village?

  8. Anonymous Coward
  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If you've got 100 million faces in your database, and a recognition accuracy of 80-90%, doesn't that make the thing effectively useless? Narrowing your investigation down to the 10-20 million most likely suspects doesn't sound very helpful.

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      If your source data for the images was something like passport photos then you also have some idea of whether these 10-20 million suspects are likely to have been in the area in question. That probably narrows it down a bit more.

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