South Florida Cops Ran Images Of Protesters Through State's Facial Recognition Database
from the Florida-exceptionalism-extends-to-the-US-Constitution-apparently dept
Thanks to some well-targeted public records requests, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has discovered local law enforcement deployed facial recognition tech against people engaged in protected First Amendment activity.
Like pretty much everywhere else in the nation, multiple cities in Florida saw demonstrators gather to protest police violence in the wake of the George Floyd killing. While some protests were marred by additional violence (including that perpetrated by law enforcement officers) and property destruction, many remained peaceful. But that didn’t stop local agencies from running photos and footage through their systems in hopes of identifying protesters.
South Florida Sun Sentinel and Pulitzer Center journalists used Florida’s public records law to access facial recognition searches local police ran as demonstrations cascaded across Broward and Palm Beach counties in May and June 2020. Those records revealed that at least three agencies — the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale police departments — submitted more than a dozen images that referenced protests or protesters, but no crimes.
In one case, records show, police requested matching images and identifying information for a “possible protest organizer” as well as their various “associates.” In another, police ran nearly 20 searches linked to “Intelligence,” a controversial use of the technology before a crime has even been committed.
The searches were run on the state’s Face Analysis Comparison & Examination System (FACES) database, which holds 25 million drivers license/ID photos, along with more than 13 million mugshots. While the Miami police department’s guidelines forbid utilizing facial recognition on subjects engaged in First Amendment activity, the agencies listed above apparently have no such policies in place.
In one case, the Ft. Lauderdale police department ran multiple searches on individuals attending a Juneteenth block party. According to the obtained records, these searches were performed using search terms like “possible protester organizer” and “associate of protest organizer.” The Boca Raton PD did the same thing multiple times, using “protest” as a search term.
Now that these have been made public, the involved agencies have very little to say about their surveillance of protesters.
Despite repeated questions, departments declined to discuss details regarding the FACES records, in some cases saying police personnel did not remember why searches were run. The Broward Sheriff’s Office and other agencies emphasized that a match alone would not be enough reason for an arrest.
“BSO uses FACES as an investigative tool,” said agency spokesperson Veda Coleman-Wright. An image match doesn’t “give investigators probable cause for an arrest, but it may provide them with a lead to move their investigation forward.”
Hey, BSO: so what? That’s no excuse for running searches targeting peaceful protesters, which is what appears to have happened. Law enforcement officers shouldn’t be trolling facial recognition databases using images of people who aren’t suspected of committing crimes. That should be the case whether or not they’re engaged in constitutionally protected activity. And the BSO — along with every other law enforcement agency in Florida — should have policies in place that make it clear that surveilling protesters is a violation of their rights and will result in severe discipline.
But instead of any agency admitting mistakes or offering to revamp facial recognition guidelines, police officials are engaging in obfuscation.
When asked for comment or records, Fort Lauderdale police provided two mostly-blank incident reports linked to FACES searches. A police spokesperson said Alexis or Holness “cannot be found in our database.” The agency provided documents, but declined to elaborate. “We will not be answering any questions,” said Fort Lauderdale Police spokesperson DeAnna Greenlaw.
Without stronger policies in place — along with state-mandated reporting requirements on facial recognition use by agencies — this sort of thing is going to happen again and again.