MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Police in the U.S. have been using facial recognition software for years, usually after a suspect is caught on camera during a crime. Now real-time facial recognition is on the horizon. In China, authorities are touting a new system's ability to spot people as they're walking down the street. Similar software is being tried by police in Russia, in India, even the United Kingdom. So when might it reach American streets? NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste went to find out.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This is connect:ID. It's a convention for the biometrics industry that's held in Washington. And the vendors' exhibit hall is just what you'd expect. Everywhere you look, there are big screens with live views of your face as you go by as computers track you and categorize you by age and sex. If they're connected to the right database, they could also guess your name. Terry Hartmann is at the booth for a German company called Cognitec. And what's new, he says, is how good these systems are getting at recognizing faces in real-world conditions.
TERRY HARTMANN: You can see all of these matches are different poses. The people aren't facing the camera straight on. You've got people with glasses. You've got the lady looking down. She's matched looking in a different direction.
KASTE: Link that to a national photo database, and it's pretty much the end of anonymity in public places. That's clearly the appeal in autocratic societies like China. But these systems are also being pitched to Western governments. Police in the United Kingdom are now scanning crowds for known troublemakers or wanted criminals. And the same tech is being offered to American police, says Clare Garvie. She tracks this issue for the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law.
CLARE GARVIE: Every major company that sells to law enforcement in the U.S. advertises the ability to do real time. And we've seen a fair amount of interest on the part of law enforcement in purchasing these systems.
KASTE: American police aren't buying the real-time systems yet, but Garvie says a few departments have requested funding to try them out. If police are hesitant, it's because the systems are pricey, and there's also the risk of a public backlash. But when it comes to legal barriers, that's less of a concern.
JONATHAN TURLEY: There's not a lot standing between instantaneous facial recognition technology and its ubiquitous use by police departments or cities.
KASTE: Jonathan Turley is a civil libertarian and law professor at George Washington University. He just gave a speech here at this convention appealing to the industry to set up better privacy protections. That's because he's not sure he can count on the courts to limit how police use facial recognition, especially if Americans get used to this tech in other settings such as on their phones or in shopping malls.
TURLEY: As businesses recognize you coming into stores and coffee shops, at what point do our expectations fall to the point that the extension of the government into the area becomes less problematic?
KASTE: In other words, why would Americans expect not to be scanned by the police if they come to expect it from, say, the customer loyalty program at their favorite coffee chain? This prediction about the gradual normalization of facial recognition is something you hear from the industry, too. Here again is Terry Hartmann from Cognitec.
HARTMANN: If organizations like casinos, security at stadiums are putting in this technology at a level that embarrasses the police where they don't have it themselves, that puts pressure on them.
KASTE: The flashiest booth at this convention belongs to NEC Corporation of America. It's a major supplier of still photo facial recognition. They say they have not yet sold any real-time systems to American police, but executive Benji Hutchinson says a few departments are starting to window shop.
BENJI HUTCHINSON: I can't say which ones. But it's been the large cities that you might imagine, some of the large coastal areas.
KASTE: One sticking point, Hutchinson says, is that American cities often don't have enough of the kind of high-def digital security cameras that you need for facial recognition. Though he says that may not matter in the long term. As if to illustrate his point, a body camera clipped to a nearby mannequin starts beeping.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
KASTE: Is that me, or is that...
HUTCHINSON: Oh, that's this thing.
KASTE: Oh, OK.
HUTCHINSON: Yeah. Yeah.
KASTE: (Laughter) I never know what's beeping. Oh, it's matching someone. OK.
A body camera that NEC has on display has recognized a passing face. Hutchinson predicts this is how the technology will come to American streets, by piggybacking on the thousands of new body cameras that departments are buying for their officers. At first, he says, it'll just be used as a way to recognize the faces of innocent people and blur them out. But it won't stop there.
HUTCHINSON: I think the second step is obviously they're going to look at ways to implement facial recognition against known or suspected terrorists or people who are wanted. That'll be the obvious next step. And it is a pretty simple leap.
KASTE: The question is, which law enforcement agency will be the first to take that leap? Hutchinson predicts it'll likely be a deep-pocketed federal department such as Customs and Border Protection, which is already testing facial recognition at passport control in airports. And as he mentions this, two CBP officials stop by the NEC booth, and the company's sales team scrambles to show them what the body cameras can do. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Washington.
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