Now that Attorney General and former Tampa Bay-area prosecutor Pam Bondi is among President-elect Donald Trump’s Legal Influencers, this is an excellent time to talk about FACES.
That’s the Department of Acronyms name for the Face Analysis Comparison Examination System, a statewide “facial recognition database” created over a decade ago by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Let’s hope our state’s top lawyer has heard of it. Most people working in Florida’s criminal justice system hadn’t until Sunday’s front page story in The Florida Times-Union by enterprise reporter Benjamin Conarck.
It’s a riveting account of an accused crack cocaine addict and dealer by the name of Willie Allen Lynch. Representing himself, Lynch discovered he and 33 million other folks are shaked and baked into a database that looks a lot like the ones on those police procedurals aimed at old people who still watch network television.
FACES golly-wow technology warp-speeds its way through millions of pictures of law-abiding people with drivers licenses along with less savory characters with mug shots —and spits out someone to arrest.
It’s a neat trick when viewed on a Jumbotron at Hawaii 5-0 headquarters.
In real life, the technology comes with questions that deserve a closer look.
“One of every two Americans is in a facial recognition database, according to a report released last month by Georgetown University. Florida’s face-matching system is the country’s largest and most active,” Conarck reports.
“Using the technology, police can insert people with no criminal histories into virtual lineups without their knowledge and identify faces on social media or in protest crowds. The software has expanded swiftly to police departments around the country, and has been left virtually unregulated.”
That won’t trouble those who think that people who have done nothing wrong have nothing about which to worry. But judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers have obligations to the Constitution which require that cards be laid on the table when a citizen’s life and liberty is at stake.
FACES software “is not designed to say ‘no’,” Conarck writes. “Instead, it returns multiple potential matches. That means police and prosecutors could be learning of alternate suspects from searching the database without notifying defense attorneys, who would be legally entitled to that information.”
This entitlement is grounded in a U.S. Supreme Court decision dating back to 1963, when judges were still writing opinions in longhand.
With the best of intentions, it’s close to impossible for law to keep up with technology. We’re just going to have to pick up the pace, and FACES is as good a place as any to start.
Not surprisingly, police and prosecutors hid behind spokesmen offering vague platitudes as Conarck went about his reporting. Bondi could take a big step in a more transparent direction by giving him some FACES time.