Abusing police technology

Visitors to the Ybor City entertainment district in Tampa, Fla., are smiling for the cameras – but many other people wisely aren’t. Tampa police have begun monitoring the hot spot with cameras backed by facial recognition software. The technology scans each face in the crowd, comparing them with a database of fugitives. A monitoring officer decides whether to alert police on the street of a likely match. Any other scanned faces are immediately deleted. Police pitch the technology as a powerful tool to detect criminals and make city streets safer. But it is only reasonable to ask who will be keeping tabs on the officers behind the cameras.

The Detroit Free Press published last week the results of its investigation into police use of Michigan’s Law Enforcement Information Network, a massive database of addresses, criminal records, license plates, driving records and other information on Michigan citizens. The Free Press found more than 90 instances of police abuse of the system during the last five years.

The newspaper uncovered a number of disturbing incidents. For example, a Memphis, Mich., officer used the LEIN to gather information on a woman he met on the Internet. The officer then stalked the woman until he was fired from the force. Also, Memphis Police Chief Phillip Ludos said officers often use the LEIN to identify attractive women from their license plates, a practice known among officers as “running a plate for a date.” And a Genesee County, Mich., jail administrator was suspended for three days after he ran LEIN searches on cars displaying bumper stickers supporting a challenger in the sheriff’s election.

Use of the LEIN is regulated by a state committee whose only real power is the authority to revoke a department’s access to the system – a penalty too severe for the council to consider. Penalties meted out by individual departments have varied widely for similar infractions.

It requires little imagination to realize that if Michigan has difficulty keeping its database under control, the more sophisticated program in Tampa is vulnerable to even greater abuse. If Michigan officers can “run a plate for a date,” what is to stop officers in Tampa from seeing if attractive passers-by are regulars in Ybor City’s nightlife? Florida officials have been noticeably silent on what checks will prevent abuse of the cameras or how those measures will be any more effective than Michigan’s failed attempt at LEIN oversight. Effective oversight is particularly needed when sophisticated technology allows officers abusing the system to shrug off responsibility onto the software for deciding which citizens to question.

Police are entitled, of course, to have the latest technology available to them, and criminals need to know that law enforcement can find them wherever they go. But law-abiding citizens have an equal right to expect those watching them to also be watched.