January 19, 2021

California’s Ban Of Facial Recognition Tech Killed Off San Diego’s Mostly Useless Biometric Program

California’s ban on use of facial recognition tech by law enforcement showed the state’s government is willing to get out ahead of potential privacy issues. The tech is as popular as it is unproven. Law enforcement agencies strongly believe facial recognition will help it apprehend criminals more efficiently, but the available data simply doesn’t back up this belief.

The tech is still pretty lousy at recognizing faces, kicking out false positives at an alarming rate. This also means it’s not recognizing faces it should be recognizing — the criminals and terrorists government agencies are convinced it will catch. They’re also prone to bias, more likely to misidentify minorities, which results in increased targeting of demographics already heavily over-represented in most law enforcement agencies’ paperwork.

California’s new ban affects mobile tech used by state agencies. This includes body cameras, smartphones, and tablets. That was enough to kill the San Diego’s multiple facial recognition programs. The San Diego PD used 1,300 cameras to build a database of 65,000 images over the course of seven years. These images were matched against a much larger database run by the San Diego Sheriff’s Department

The program went into effect without the public being informed.

Introduced in 2012 by the countywide San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) without any public hearing or notice, the Tactical Identification System (TACIDS) gave law enforcement officials access to software that focuses on unique textures and patterns in the face—ear shape, hair, skin color—using the distance between the eyes as a baseline. In less than two seconds, the software compares those unique identifiers to a mugshot database of 1.8 million images collected by the San Diego County Sheriff’s office.

The San Diego PD used this database more frequently than any other agency with access to it, which included federal agencies like ICE. According to the PD, its increased access rate was mostly altruistic.

[T]he department used facial recognition scans more than 8,000 times in 2018, almost double the number in 2016, which it says was largely due to the formation of a new division, Neighborhood Policing Division (formed in March of 2018), aimed at addressing the issue of homelessness. SDPD equipped officers in the new division with TACIDS devices to help identify homeless people, who often do not have identification.

The SDPD did not say whether this use of the database actually resulted in correctly-identified homeless people. But the statement it did give Fast Company suggests its thousands of queries were mostly dead ends.

“While facial recognition could be a useful tool, we do not foresee the three-year moratorium on mobile face recognition use by law enforcement as having much of an impact on our department,” says Lieutenant Justin White, media relations director for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

This statement is far more telling. While certain California law enforcement officials are bemoaning the ban, the San Diego PD must have already known the tech was over-hyped. If it worked as advertised, the local law enforcement agencies would have delivered a steady stream of success stories. But when something is a constant disappointment — and you’ve decided you’re going to use it anyway — you avoid creating a paper trail.

Lieutenant White of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department said they have not been tracking TACIDS successes in arrests and prosecutions, so they do not have any statistics. Neither does the SDPD, according to spokesperson Lieutenant Shawn Takeuchi.

That’s the burial of bad news. There’s no reason to give critics of sketchy surveillance programs any more ammunition than they already have to work with. The moratorium will have almost no effect on law enforcement in the state — something that few agencies are willing to publicly acknowledge. They want the tech even though it has proven — over the course of seven years — to have added nothing to their ability to do their job.
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