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With power of facial recognition and high-tech surveillance, where to draw the line between safety and spying?

April 25, 2014 at 6:27 PM EDT
The FBI’s Next Generation Identification program, officially launching this summer, will give police access to more data than ever before by way of biometrics—biological marks from facial scans and palm prints—to identify suspects. Some opponents worry this growing web of security will give police too much personal information without a warrant. The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Amanda Pike reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: During the past year, we have learned a lot about the U.S. government’s surveillance program.

But those efforts are not limited to the National Security Agency. Local law enforcement agencies are also gathering and mining unprecedented amounts of data. Privacy advocates worry police can use this information to track anyone at any time without a warrant.

The Center for Investigative Reporting, in partnership with KQED San Francisco, has been looking into these new tools for fighting crime.

The center’s Amanda Pike has this report.

AMANDA PIKE: Officer Rob Halverson of the Chula Vista Police Department is testing the technology that could change how police fight crime.

He’s on a call to verify the identity of a woman just arrested for possession of narcotics. He doesn’t need to ask her name or check her I.D. He just takes her picture.

OFFICER ROB HALVERSON, Chula Vista Police Department: Just look here, please.

AMANDA PIKE: His tablet uses facial recognition software to find the suspect’s mug shot and criminal history.

OFFICER ROB HALVERSON: You can lie about your name. You can lie about your date of birth. You can lie about your address, but tattoos, birthmarks, scars don’t lie.

AMANDA PIKE: Police have access to more data than ever before, raising questions about how that information is used and stored. The tablet is part of a pilot program in San Diego County.

OFFICER ROB HALVERSON: It’s been very helpful. And some people just have to have the threat of, OK, you don’t want to tell us who you are? We are just going to take a photo and we’re going to be able to compare. And then when people kind of realize the technology we now have, they’re more likely to tell us their real name in that.

AMANDA PIKE: More and more, police are using biometrics, biological markers from face scans and palm prints, in addition to fingerprints, to identify suspects.

Fingerprinting itself has been revolutionized. Now prints are taken on a mobile scanner and transmitted thousands of miles away to this highly secure FBI complex in West Virginia.

WILLIAM MCKINSEY, FBI: This is Next Generation Identification.

AMANDA PIKE: These servers are the heart of the FBI’s Next Generation Identification program, or NGI. Officially launching this summary, the billion-dollar program will add facial scans and other biometrics to the existing trove of 137 million fingerprints.

WILLIAM MCKINSEY: These computers analyze each fingerprint and photo that officers send.

It comes to these servers, and these servers actually do the searches for all 137 million of them. And then, if they get a hit, they go down to pick information out of the storage to send the criminal history back to the querying officer.

AMANDA PIKE: This data center runs up to 160,000 searches a day.

WILLIAM MCKINSEY: It’s a big one. You can picture as being a football field on top of another football field.

AMANDA PIKE: The FBI has been collecting fingerprints since the early 1900s. Prints were originally checked by hand and it could take months to find a match.

Now computers do the same work in minutes. But, until recently, the FBI had no easy way to search palm prints and mug shots taken at the time of arrest. That frustrated agents like Jeremy Wiltz, the acting assistant general director of criminal justice information services.

JEREMY WILTZ, FBI: We could do very little with the mug shots that we had. If we were collecting palm prints, we could do very little with those. We had nothing that really searched those. So for unsolved crimes, you would struggle to be able to search that stuff. So insert NGI.

AMANDA PIKE: Any local law enforcement officer connected to NGI can submit an image and get a list of faces with matching features.

JEREMY WILTZ: So, these would be the candidates that would come back.

AMANDA PIKE: The FBI is also adding iris scans to the database because each person’s eye contains a unique pattern that’s easy to capture. For Wiltz, the real power of NGI is solving cold cases.

JEREMY WILTZ: Think about how powerful that is. I can’t wait until those success stories come out. It will be worth its weight in gold of why we developed NGI.

JENNIFER LYNCH, Electronic Frontier Foundation: The biggest concern and what people need to know about Next Generation Identification is that anybody could end up being in that database.

AMANDA PIKE: Jennifer Lynch is a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is suing the FBI to find out exactly what data the agency is collecting.

JENNIFER LYNCH: The way that NGI is set up, the FBI has said, is that they’re just including mug shots. But that is really just a policy that the FBI has taken. There’s no law that says that they have to limit the inclusion of images to mug shots.

AMANDA PIKE: The FBI acknowledges that its facial recognition system sometimes flags the wrong people; 15 percent of the time, the suspect won’t be among the top 50 hits.

JENNIFER LYNCH: Those people whose face images come up suddenly have to prove their innocence, rather than the government having to prove their guilt, and that’s completely different, again, from how our democracy has been set up.

AMANDA PIKE: Privacy advocates worry that a growing web of traffic monitors, license plate readers and network security cameras will soon allow police to track our every move, all without a warrant.

The legal issues over how these new technologies are used and who has access to all of this information are far from settled. With so much data being collected, the new tools pose a challenge, where to draw the line between safer streets and spying.

At a high-tech nerve center in Los Angeles, police grapple with this question every day.

JOHN ROMERO, Captain, Los Angeles Police Department: About 1,000 cameras in the city are fed and monitored here mostly for investigative purposes.

AMANDA PIKE: Captain John Romero commands the Real-time Analysis and Critical Response Division, which tracks crimes across the city with an up-to-the-minute map of every incident that is reported.

JOHN ROMERO: A small picture of a bomb would be a call. The masks are robbery calls. The fists are assault crimes.

AMANDA PIKE: Romero says new technologies allow the department to do predictive policing, determining when and where crimes are more likely to occur. As part of a new initiative, police also monitor private cameras near the Hollywood sign and warn off interlopers through a speaker.

JOHN ROMERO: They are trespassers at this point.

AMANDA PIKE: Romero believes that, while the public may be uneasy about being watched, they will soon see the benefits.

JOHN ROMERO: In early America, when we started putting up streetlights, people thought that this is the government trying to see what we’re doing at night to spy on us.

And so, over time, things shifted. And now, if you tried to take down streetlights in Los Angeles or Boston or anywhere else, people would say, no, it’s public safety. You’re hurting our public safety just so you can save money on lighting.

I think that cameras will eventually get there where cameras will not be a problem in the future.

AMANDA PIKE: But not everyone agrees. These protesters in Oakland fear that police will soon be able to watch anyone any time with little oversight.

For months, they fought a plan to create what they called a citywide surveillance system, an extensive network of live camera and data feeds. In March, they convinced the City Council to scale back its plan — for now.

But, as police experiment with ever more sophisticated technologies, the debate will continue on the balance between security and privacy and where to draw that line.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Center for Investigative Reporting produced that report in partnership with KQED San Francisco.

Tomorrow night, on NewsHour Weekend, we will show you the results of one city’s secret experiment with a new technology called wide area surveillance.