Body Worn Video Steering Group

Changing Faces of Technology: Body Camera Biometrics

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In February the NYC based think tank Data & Society Research Institute published a report focused on police body worn video cameras. Their aim is to assess the various aspects of the technology, in relation to biometrics and privacy, resulting in what this may mean for the future.

Body Camera Biometrics

As the increased use of body cameras has taken precedence on the international stage, questions have arisen in terms of its relationship to biometrics, i.e. facial recognition software.

The current landscape of biometric measurement in law enforcement is primitive at best, yet as the technology develops in sophistication the implications will be of high importance.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines biometrics as the “measurable biological (anatomical and physiological) or behavioural characteristics used for identification of an individual.”

Distinctive markers such as fingerprints, facial features, DNA, voice, and iris scans can be used to identify individuals, usually by matching them against a pre-existing database. Today, some law enforcement and intelligence agencies rely on computer-based recognition software.Body Camera Biometrics

For example in July 2014, the Leicestershire Police in the UK began testing the NeoFace System, a facial recognition software, to scan CCTV and body-worn camera footage. However, when the system found a match, it turned out to be the wrong person 45% of the time. Outside of a controlled environment, facial recognition is prone to inaccuracy and a high false-positive rate.

More recently in March 2015, the Commons Science and Technology Committee said it was “alarmed” that police in England and Wales had collected the mugshots of innocent and guilty people alike.

BBC Newsnight revealed police were holding 18 million images to use with facial recognition technology, provoking a response from the government who said the technology had an “important role” but images had to be used “in accordance with the law”.

In the U.S. some police departments have already begun using facial recognition to scan CCTV surveillance footage against mug shot databases, e.g. Seattle and Chicago. In Seattle, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has expressed concern over the collection of information on people not suspected of criminal activity, a practice that will likely become a major privacy concern as the technology spreads.

Recent advances in technology are also making possible increasingly invasive extraction of biometric information from video footage. In 2014, a security expert was able to replicate a German politician’s fingerprint based on a high-resolution photograph of her hand.

Body Camera Biometrics

Researchers have also found a way to identify the person wearing a body-worn camera by comparing biometric markers such as camera motion (like shakes) and stride length, meaning that a person filming will not necessarily remain anonymous. The dominant concern is that legal rights to privacy are struggling to keep up with ever-changing faces of technology.

Although the fourth amendment likely protects biometric information such as DNA or fingerprints from collection without due cause, in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that police could take DNA samples from individuals arrested in connection to serious crimes.

Laws are even less clear on when, if ever, something as publicly visible as the human face can be protected from automatic identification. The NYPD’s Facial Recognition Unit have begun combing photos on social media platforms to identify suspects, blurring the line between collection of criminal and non-criminal biometric data.

The FBI is also in the process of building the Next Generation Identification program (NGI), a large-scale biometric database covering faces, fingerprints, and other identifiers. This database will store both criminal and non-criminal information, such as photos and fingerprints submitted to employers.

One concern raised by the Center for Democracy and Technology is that police departments could draw body-worn camera footage from databases and use facial recognition to catalogue attendees of protests or political rallies.

According to the PERF Report, “Body-worn cameras raise many privacy issues that have not been considered before. Unlike many traditional surveillance methods, body-worn cameras can simultaneously record both audio and video and capture close-up images that allow for the potential use of facial recognition technology.”

This article is a condensed version of ‘When Can Biometrics Be Collected or Used?’ (p.22-24) Read the full report here.

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