Crime-Fighting Face Recognition Tech Stirs Controversy

A handheld device used to recognize possible criminals could also infringe on people's privacy.

THE GIST

A police tool recognizes people based on their eyes, face or fingerprints.

It matches the biometric information against a criminal record database.

Privacy advocates worry it will be used as a general surveillance tool.

Controversy is brewing over a new crime-fighting tool that will allow law enforcement agencies across the country to recognize people based on their eyes, face or fingerprints.

It's known as MORIS, short for Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System. A police officer attaches a handheld biometric device to a smart phone, so it's small enough and light enough to take from the station house into the field.

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At any time, the officer can snap an image of someone's face from up to five feet away, scan a person's eye from up to six inches away or take fingerprints. At that point, the device does an immediate check for any match in a criminal record database. That database has grown over the last four years and it's available in 47 states. Each handheld device costs $3,000.

"You don't need to know the name, the date of birth, the social security number. You don't need to know anything," says Sean Mullin, president of the developer, BI2 Technologies. "You simply need to ask them, 'Look in the camera,' and in a matter of seconds, their true identity and all their criminal record comes back."

Sheriff Joseph McDonald of Plymouth County, Mass., calls the tool a game-changer. "It's going to allow us to know with a great level of certainty, No. 1, who it is we are taking in when we book them in, and who it is on the other end of that sentence that we are releasing?" McDonald says.

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But privacy advocates, including Jay Stanley of the ACLU, say, not so fast.

"We think there should be some rules and regulations in place that govern how the police use these things so that it can be used when it's appropriate -- when the police has probable cause that you have committed a crime -- but that they don't start using them all over the place as a generalized surveillance tool," Stanley said.

One feature of the handheld device may calm some of the privacy concerns -- once the recognition data is either matched or cleared, no record of the images or identifying information is stored.

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