Privacy SOS

Sex offenders scapegoat for biometrics program that will affect everyone

This is how it starts. 

“You always start with sex offenders because nobody is going to stick up for sex offenders. The question is where it goes from there.”

“It” in this case is face recognition in the state of Iowa. The speaker there was Republican state senator Chip Baltimore, who is concerned about a new statewide plan to roll out a face recognition identification program directed at sex offenders. Directed at sex offenders for now, that is.

From the Globe Gazette:

The Iowa Department of Public Safety is in the middle of a program to equip every Iowa sheriff’s department with an electronic signature pad, laptop computer and digital camera that can support the high-resolution data to feed through facial recognition software.

“Biometrics is really coming up to play a big part in law enforcement and investigations and things like that,” said Terry Cowman, special agent in charge of the state’s sex offender registry program.

“What’s interesting about facial rec is it is kind of the future of where we’re at.”

He has about $110,000 to pay for the hardware through a federal grant. Now he’s seeking another $180,000 to pay for the software and training that would allow the state to digitize roughly 10,000 photos, but he won’t receive word on the grant until spring.

The FBI is encouraging state participation in its massive biometrics expansion programs in places like Michigan and Nebraska, just two among many other examples. Sheriffs departments in Massachusetts have been using mobile biometrics and face recognition tools for years. The federal government is investing over a billion dollars in its “Next Generation Identification” program, which aims to collect, store and share the biometric data of hundreds of millions of people. Just in case.

In Iowa, the special agent in charge of the pilot sex offender face recognition program, Terry Cowen, acknowledges that if the money comes through and the plans move forward, the project will likely expand beyond sex offenders to include the general population. 

From the Globe Gazette: 

“We could not say this couldn’t be moved to mugshots or other information databases because that could only enhance the tool for detectives,” he wrote in an email response to a question on privacy concerns.

“This software would not be used for general use or civil priorities but only to give detectives an additional tool to use to further investigations.

“The information gleaned from a template match could be used for further leads in many types of criminal cases.”

And that’s to say nothing of the “intelligence” deployments.

The power biometrics technologies give local, state and federal government agents cannot be overstated. With biometrics collection tools in the hands of every local police officer, it won’t be long until all of our data is in the FBI’s massive database. And then what?

Among the dystopian but highly probable scenarios — if we don’t intervene to stop it — is the eradication of anonymity in public. It’s not hard for the government to install face recognition software in the backend systems of hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras that DHS paid for local governments to install across our cities and towns over the past ten years. And it appears increasingly likely that the federal government will push to include so-called “legacy databases” like motor vehicle registry information in their face recognition portals. Imagine that. With a simple data transfer, your ID photo could be dumped into the FBI’s biometrics databank. The government would then be able to easily identify every adult walking down the street, at any time of day, even from thousands of miles away.

Who cares about anonymity? People who are voicing protest against government policy care. (Too bad for protesters: we already know the FBI plans to track them at political demonstrations using face recognition technologies.) Domestic violence survivors care. Anyone who wants to be left alone and not constantly tracked by their government for no good reason cares. 

How to fight back? If you don’t want face recognition deployed in your town, city or state, your best bet is to put your local officials on notice. Pay attention to what goes on at your local police department and town government. If you see that the police are applying for a grant to obtain this kind of technology, raise the issue with your city or town government and ask for a public hearing. 

Often the best way to stop these efforts is at the most local level. You have a voice there. Use it — before it’s too late.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.