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Pinellas Sheriff's Office expands facial recognition system

ST. PETERSBURG — The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is teaming with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to expand use of its facial recognition system.

Sheriff's deputies now can perform facial searches using the state's driver's license database. Up to this point, deputies have only been able to use facial recognition to search a large database of statewide jail mug shots.

The Pinellas project is a yearlong pilot program. If successful, it could be used statewide.

"We're breaking new ground here," Sheriff Jim Coats said Thursday.

Law enforcement agencies already have access to the driver's license system. When they type in a person's name, they get that person's information, which includes a photo. Now, deputies can search by face.

For the pilot program, only the images of drivers from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee counties will be used.

Officials said the new partnership could help deputies catch more instances of driver's license fraud and identity theft.

The pilot is not costing the Sheriff's Office or the state any additional money, Coats said.

Pinellas already has had a lot of success with its facial recognition system, which it implemented eight years ago. Deputies routinely use the technology to establish or verify the identity of people who don't have identification or those who lie about who they are.

The system has led to 479 arrests since 2004. The technology is used at the Pinellas County Jail and by 170 patrol deputies.

Bruce Howie, chairman of the legal panel for the Pinellas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the technology should be used only if there is probable cause or doubt about the person's identity; or if the person gives the officer consent to take a photo.

"They're okay as long as they stick with the consent approach," Howie said. "People should still be mindful that anytime you have a new technology introduced, you must be concerned about Fourth Amendment search and seizure issues."

Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, said he once had privacy concerns about the program. But Young has helped the Sheriff's Office get nearly $8 million in grants for its system since 2001.

"As I've seen this program develop, I'm convinced that no innocent person has anything to fear from this program," he said.

How facial recognition works

First, a digital image of a person's face is entered into the system, which maps out 128 facial landmark points and turns the image into an algorithm. Then the algorithm, which is oblivious to hairstyle, gender, race or age, is compared against others in the database. Seconds later, a batch of possible matches shows up, along with other demographic data. It's up to the human user, however, to make the final call about if an exact match.

Pinellas Sheriff's Office expands facial recognition system 08/27/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 27, 2009 9:52pm]
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