With new gadgets, cops will never forget a face E-mail
Written by APB Staff   
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, dozens of law-enforcement agencies from Massachusetts to Arizona are preparing to equip their officers with controversial hand-held facial-recognition devices as soon as this month.

The device in question is an iPhone app and associated device made by BI2 Technologies of Plymouth, Massachusetts.

With the device attached to an iPhone, an officer can take a picture of a face from up to five feet away, or scan a person's irises from up to six inches away. Officers can then use that data to do a search to see if there is a match with a database of people suspected of terrorism or to see if they have criminal records.

The new gadget even collects fingerprints.

Like a lot of police gear, the device is a military hand-me-down to domestic law enforcement.

The portable technology has mostly been limited to military uses in Iraq and Afghanistan to identify possible insurgents.

The product rollout has raised concerns among some privacy advocates. They say there are questions to be answered about whether or not using the device in certain ways would constitute a "search" that requires a warrant.

Cops, unlike civilians, are free to record any individual in a public space.

But if a law enforcement officer stops or detains someone, then different standards apply, and officers might be required to get a warrant.

Due to the fact that facial and iris-recognition technology hasn't been put to the test of court challenges, it remains "a gray area of the law," says Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University with an expertise in search-and-seizure law.

BI2 says it has agreements with about 40 agencies to deliver roughly 1,000 of the devices, which cost $3,000 apiece.

Some law enforcement officials believe the new gear could be an important weapon against crime.
"We are living in an age where a lot of people try to live under the radar and in the shadows and avoid law enforcement," Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County, Arizona told the Wall Street Journal.

He is equipping 75 deputies under his command with the device in the fall.

Mr. Babeu says the new technology dovetails nicely with Arizona's SB 1070.

The sheriff says his deputies will start using the gadget to try to identify people they stop who aren't carrying other identification.

In Arizona and several other states that have passed strict immigration laws, police can now arrest people for not carrying valid photo ID.

Sheriff Babeu says it also will be used to verify the identity of people arrested for a crime, potentially exposing the use of fake IDs and quickly determining a person's criminal history.

Others who are less focused on immigration violators say there are enough unanswered questions to give them concern. Bill Johnson, executive director at the National Association of Police Organizations, says he is concerned in particular that iris scanning, which must be done at close range and requires special technology, could be considered a search.

"Even technically if some law says you can do it, it is not worth it - it is just not the right thing to do," Mr. Johnson told the Journal.

Sheriff Joseph McDonald Jr. of Plymouth County in Massachusetts, who tested early versions of the device and will get a handful of them in the fall, says he plans to tell his deputies not to use facial recognition without reasonable suspicion.

"Two hundred years of constitutional law isn't going away," he told reporters.

Right now it looks like the device is being put into practice regardless of issues of privacy or legal issues that emerge down the line.

BI2 says it urges officers shouldn't use the device willy-nilly.

"Sheriffs and law enforcement should not use this on anybody but suspected criminals," says Sean Mullin, BI2's chief executive. The Department of Justice referred questions about the device to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which didn't respond to a request for comment.

Face- and iris-recognition technologies make up about 16%, of the $4.3 billion biometrics industry, which is dominated by fingerprint technology, according to market research by New York-based International Biometric Group LLC.


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