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Posted 10/18/19


Police love Rapid DNA and facial recognition but hate encryption.
Privacy advocates beg to differ.

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. DNA’s forensic applications date back to 1984, when Dr. Alec Jeffries discovered that he could distinguish between family members by comparing repeat sequences of linked chemical pairs in their genetic code. Within a couple of years he used the technique to assist police, and in the process helped free an unjustly accused man. DNA’s usefulness for fighting crime (and exonerating the innocent) quickly became evident, and its use took off.

     Forensic DNA analysis is couched in probabilities. An absolutely positive match, with the likelihood of error less than one over the population of the Earth, requires that samples have identical linked pairs at each of thirteen standard locations (“loci”) in the human genome. (For more on this see our interview with a real expert at “DNA: Proceed With Caution.”) Attaining that level of certainty is not difficult when DNA is abundant, say, from a cheek swab. But things can get tricky with crime scene evidence, and especially when the DNA is a mix with multiple contributors.

     Processing DNA involves four steps: extracting whatever DNA may be present; measuring its quantity and assessing its quality; using the “PCR” method to make millions of copies of DNA sequences; and finally, separating the DNA molecules, reducing their characteristics to a profile that can be compared with other samples. Each step involves different groups of highly-skilled technicians laboring in clean rooms using specialized tools and expensive machines. Even under the most favorable conditions, and with the most up-t0-date equipment, traditional DNA typing can consume an entire day.

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     That’s why the notorious backlog. Despite an infusion of local, state and Federal funding, the reported “average” wait for results is – hold on! – five months. (For information about the Fed’s DNA “backlog reduction program” click here.)

     Now imagine a lone operator doing it all in less than two hours with a single machine! That’s what “Rapid DNA” is all about.  First used in criminal casework by the Palm Bay, Florida police department, Rapid DNA has been adopted by many local and state agencies, most recently the Kentucky State Police. So far, though, the newfangled machines work best with substantial quantities of single-source DNA (i.e., cheek swabs) and tend to be flummoxed by small or mixed samples, such as “unknown” DNA found at crime scenes. Accordingly, Rapid DNA profiles are not considered sufficiently trustworthy for inclusion in or comparison with the approximately eighteen million DNA profiles of local, state and Federal arrestees and convicted persons present in the FBI’s national CODIS database, which were processed in the old-fashioned, time-consuming way.

     However, a major Federal initiative is underway to upgrade Rapid DNA technology so that its output is acceptable for CODIS. If it succeeds, and DNA typing becomes, as the FBI’s “infographic” tantalizingly suggests, a routine aspect of the booking process, police could quickly compare crime scene DNA with genetic profiles of most anyone who’s run seriously afoul of the law. And yes, its use to that end has been endorsed by the “Supremes.” Here’s what our nation’s highest court said in Maryland v. King (2013):

    When officers make an arrest supported by probable cause to hold for a serious offense and bring the suspect to the station to be detained in custody, taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

     At present, U.S. Government agencies collect DNA “from individuals who are arrested, facing charges, or convicted, and from non-United States persons who are detained under the authority of the United States, subject to certain limitations and exceptions” and “to preserve biological evidence in federal criminal cases in which defendants are under sentences of imprisonment.” Each State also permits or requires collecting DNA from persons convicted of felonies, and thirty authorize it for certain classes of arrested persons. California, for example, allows DNA typing of everyone arrested for a felony and of a misdemeanor should they have a prior felony conviction.

     Although there have been problems with DNA technology, and the legal authority to collect it is occasionally challenged, even the staunchest civil libertarians will concede that when it comes to wrongful arrest and conviction DNA has been an overwhelming force for good. But the advent of Rapid DNA – read, “cheap and quick” – has enabled the technique’s use in politically controversial areas.

     Such as immigration enforcement. DHS, for example, recently deployed Rapid DNA at the Southern border to combat fraudulent claims by would-be immigrants that the children who accompany them are blood relatives. Its successful use to confirm parentage inspired a Federal initiative that would collect DNA from everyone in immigration custody and transmit it to CODIS. That goal, which was clearly unattainable until Rapid DNA came on scene, was first authorized by a 2008 Federal rule that sought to use DNA “to solve and hold [unauthorized immigrants] accountable for any crimes committed in the United States…before the individual’s removal from the United States places him or her beyond the ready reach of the United States justice system.” But the ACLU balked. Here’s what one of its lawyers said:

    That kind of mass collection alters the purpose of DNA collection from one of criminal investigation basically to population surveillance, which is basically contrary to our basic notions of a free, trusting, autonomous society.

     Similar concerns have been voiced about the emerging field of facial recognition. Unlike DNA, the technology used to identify persons from photographs and video images isn’t sufficiently trustworthy to use in court. Instead, it’s all about generating investigative leads. Thanks to artificial intelligence software,  detectives with, say, a robbery video can quickly scour photo databanks – think passports, driver licenses, criminal record repositories, online social networks and so on – for a match. According to a recent NBC news investigation, that approach can yield impressive results:

    In Colorado, local investigators have foiled credit-card fraudsters, power-tool bandits and home-garage burglars and identified suspects in a shooting and a road-rage incident…The technology has led to the capture of a serial robber in Indiana, a rapist in Pennsylvania, a car thief in Maine, robbery suspects in South Carolina, a sock thief in New York City and shoplifters in Washington County, Oregon.

     It’s not just about conventional crime. Driver licenses are the predominant tool of everyday identification, so it’s important to prevent their fraudulent issue. Motor vehicle agencies (New York State is one) have used facial-recognition technology for years to combat fraudsters who amass multiple licenses under different names.

     Yet doubts about facial recognition linger. Accuracy-wise, it’s got a ways to go. Even after all the development, it still works best for white males. Erroneous matches for persons of color and, especially, black women, are depressingly common. But just like Rapid DNA, the sharpest criticism is about the threat that facial recognition poses to civil liberties. “The Perpetual Line-Up,” a project of Georgetown Law School, warns that there is “a real risk that police face recognition will be used to stifle free speech”:

    Of the 52 agencies that we found to use (or have used) face recognition, we found only one, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, whose face recognition use policy expressly prohibits its officers from using face recognition to track individuals engaging in political, religious, or other protected free speech.

     Alarm that America will mimic China, where video surveillance is ubiquitous, have led the liberal burg’s of Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and Sorverville, Massachusetts to ban government use of facial recognition technology altogether. Even Detroit has imposed strict controls. A crime-fraught place where more than four-hundred businesses beam continuous video to police, facial recognition is limited to still photos and violent crimes. So forget about using those video streams! Really, had it not been for Police Chief James Craig’s supplications to the city council – he promised that police would compare photos with exquisite care – America’s one-time “Motor City” would have likely imposed a total, Berkeley-like ban. Still, his mention that facial recognition had already identified many violent criminals enraged activists, who were upset that the technology had been employed without their assent.

     Most recently, facial recognition has taken a hit over its use in – you guessed it – immigration enforcement. According to the Washington Post, more than a dozen States are issuing driver licenses or their equivalents to illegal immigrants. Immigration authorities know that, so they regularly turn to those states’ DMV databases to run the photos of, say, absconders who fail to show up for their hearings. That’s drawn Georgetown Law’s ire. According to Clare Garvier, who led the school’s research, “it’s an insane breach of trust” for DMV offices to knowingly issue licenses “then turn around and allow ICE access” to the photos.

     Technology has given police new tools. It’s also taken some away. In “A Dead Man’s Tales” we wrote of the FBI’s struggle to get Apple to give up the passcode for a dead terrorist’s cell phone. (Eventually, the Feebs managed to unlock the device on their own.)

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     But law enforcement’s concerns aren’t only about “national security.” The Internet is a known go-to place for a multitude of odious pursuits. Say, child sex trafficking. Yet service providers seem strangely indifferent. As Exhibit A, consider Facebook’s plan to institute end to end encryption for all its messaging services (WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger). Determined to make both sides to conversations impermeable to real-time interception (what we used to call “wiretapping”), humanity’s most popular social media platform stubbornly resists the notion of incorporating an electronic “back door.”

     How to move forward? A recent Carnegie report about the struggle suggests that cops forego intercepting “data-in-motion,” that is, as it flows in real time. In exchange, they could get (with a warrant, of course) a pass-key for accessing “data-at-rest”, meaning what’s present on devices they seize. Of course, from the law enforcement perspective that’s hardly sufficient. Stripped of the ability to act proactively, police and the Feds would have to content themselves with collecting evidence after the fact; that is, what the bad guys and girls didn’t erase. Preventing crime? Minimizing potentially horrific outcomes? Forgedabboud it!

     And that “solution,” dear readers, is what preeminent members of the American intelligentsia propose. Good thing they’re not crooks!

UPDATES (scroll)

7/5/24  Denver resident Kevin Bui, 20, just drew sixty years for setting a house fire that killed five members of a Senegalese family four years ago. Bui, a drug dealer, had used an online app to track his cell phone, of which he had been robbed, to the victims’ home. Bui and his two accomplices were identified by police who had Google provide IP numbers that searched for the home’s address shortly before the arson. Bui admitted that he and the others set the fire. As it turns out, it had been the wrong home.

7/1/24  Detroit PD’s missteps with facial recognition technology, which led to three wrongful arrests, have resulted in a court settlement that binds the agency to implement new practices. Most importantly, images of persons ID’d through facial recognition cannot be shown to witnesses or included in photo lineups unless they are also linked to a crime in another way. Photospreads must also be shown by an officer not connected with the investigation, and displayed not in a group but one picture at a time. (See 8/14/23 update)

6/28/24  A report by the Sacramento Grand Jury criticizes police for sharing information from a county-wide network of 170 automated license plate readers. ALPR’s automatically capture images of as many as 1,800 license plates per minute. But while State law prohibits it, this data was being shared with other States and the Feds. That practice is now suspended. Police, though, say that ALPR’s have been highly useful, leading to the recovery of 495 stolen vehicles in their first month of operation. Report

5/24/24  Police agencies around the U.S. currently deploy drones for various purposes. In California, the Chula Vista Police Dept. began using drones for 9-1-1 calls in 2018, and their ability to arrive quickly and livestream potentially crucial video proved to be of great benefit. A new firm, Brinc, now offers purpose-built 9-1-1 drones as part of a full-service, contractual arrangement that “starts in the low tens of thousands and can run into the millions of dollars.” Its model will soon be tested by Hawthorne police.

5/21/24  CODIS, the FBI’s national DNA database, has about 22 million profiles derived from DNA samples routinely taken by local, State and Federal agencies from criminal offenders. It’s the “go-to” place for identifying perpetrators using crime scene DNA. And since 2020, immigration agents have been sending in cheek swabs from nearly every non-citizen they detain. These submissions, which could rise to as many as 748,000 per year, must be DNA-typed along with those of ordinary arrestees. And that’s led the FBI to ask for major new resources to deal with the backlog. FBI fact sheet

5/20/24  Thanks to facial recognition matches by Leander, TX police, two men are awaiting trial on separate cases of assault with a knife and armed robbery. Those crimes were committed in Austin, but its police are prohibited (as are cops in many other cities, including San Francisco) from using facial recognition technology to find suspects because of issues with racial bias and accuracy. Of course, asking Leander to help broke the rules, and some Austin cops may be in a pickle. As are two suspects.

5/9/24  Police are identifying student protesters, putting names to faces, through the same techniques that landed many Capitol rioters in jail. A.I. is being used to compare facial images from neighborhood and school security cameras and officer bodycams to existing photos that are present online. Videos are also being scanned for license plates of vehicles that may have been involved. And police hope that citizens will tip them off about the identities of some of the violent protesters, particularly those who wore masks, from videos that were posted online.

3/5/24  Boston PD implemented a body-worn camera program in 2016. It was assessed by comparing  officers wearing cameras with those who did not. Results indicate that camera-equipped officers had 63.6 percent fewer use-of-force reports and 50.5 percent fewer citizen complaints durin the study period. These differences are considered statistically significant, and DOJ has rated the program “effective.” (See 3/24/23 update)

Enacted post-Floyd, Colorado law lets citizens sue individual police officers for violating their State constitutional rights. And a Denver state jury just awarded $3.76 million to Ruby Johnson, 78. She sued two SWAT officers for wrongly searching her home and damaging its contents. The owner of a stolen truck had used his phone’s “Find My” app to track the vehicle to her house. Police used that information to get a search warrant. But they ignored the fact that the app’s location data is imprecise.

1/25/24  Ring’s decision to kick law enforcement off its “Neighbors” app makes it substantially more difficult for police to acquire video from doorbell cameras. They were once able to use the app to request footage directly from users whose homes were near crime scenes or other locations of interest. But privacy advocates objected that this allowed “casual and warrantless police requests”. Ring announced that it will provide critical videos to police, but only under “limited circumstances.”

1/2/24  A rash of “gruesome” collisions caused by speeding drivers moved California to pass a law authorizing Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, Glendale, Long Beach and San Francisco to install speed cameras at high-risk locations, including school zones and places where street racing runs rampant. Warnings will be issued for the first two months. They will be followed by progressively stiffer fines topping at $500 for vehicles exceeding 100 mph. Los Angeles is planning to install more than one-hundred cameras. Speed cameras are presently in use at over two-hundred U.S. communities. AB 245

12/22/23  Google is changing its technology for storing user locations. Data will be encrypted so that the company won’t be able to respond to “geofence warrants.” These have been widely used by law enforcement agencies to identify the electronic devices - and hence, their users - that were active around certain locations during certain times. (See 3/22/22 update)

11/20/23  In October 2020 California required that police not openly transmit sensitive State criminal record information. That’s led some agencies, most recently the San Diego County Sheriff, to encrypt all radio traffic. But police watchdogs object this impairs citizen oversight over the police. It’s “giving them the ability to hide.” Some agencies, such as San Diego police, use both open and encrypted radio channels. But effectively managing both can be problematic. And a California billthat would limit encrypted police radio traffic to sensitive data remains hung up. (See 8/15/22 update)

11/20/23  Technology that helps cops do their jobs - and keeps them on the straight and narrow - is in the news. DHS is testing Maxentric Techonologies’ hand-held DePLife gadgets, which pierce walls with radar waves to sense whether living objects are on the other side. And LAPD is engaged in a university study that will use AI to scan body-cam footage from 1,000 traffic stops to detect “problematic” language or tone. NYPD has reportedly begun using Truleo, a commercial service, to the same ends.

9/25/23  Complaints that facial recognition technology is less accurate for Black persons continue to generate lawsuits. Most recently, a Black resident of Georgia is suing after his arrest on a Louisiana warrant for using a stolen credit card to make a purchase in the New Orleans area. An image captured by a surveillance camera was matched to his Georgia driver license. Randal Quran Reid was held in a Georgia jail for several days until his lawyer convinced Louisiana authorities they had the wrong man.

9/5/23  New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, predicts that having aerial drones monitor Labor Day celebrations will prove beneficial. According to an NYPD commissioner, citizen complaints about rowdy gatherings inspired the move.  “If a caller states there’s a large crowd, a large party in a backyard, we’re going to be utilizing our assets to go up and go check on the party.” But a leader of the city’s ACLU chapter is troubled. “Deploying drones in this way is a sci-fi inspired scenario.”

8/25/23  Are cops needlessly spurring conflict through their choice of words and delivery? An academic study will scour bodycam videos of 1,000 officer-citizen encounters during a three-year period to identify the characteristics of successful interactions. Artificial intelligence will be used to select episodes where officers “cross the line” and to recommend solutions. Variables will include officer age and experience, citizen race, and the location of a stop.

8/14/23  Facing lawsuits by three Black persons who claim they were falsely arrested because of facial recognition technology, Detroit’s police chief announced he would curtail its use and require officers have other evidence to support guilt before seeking a warrant. Most recently, a 32-year old mother was arrested for robbery and carjacking after a victim picked her (assumedly, driver license) picture, which was included in a photo lineup based on images from a video camera. Charges have since been dropped. (See 7/1/24 update)

7/20/23  A new NIJ report highlights the increased use of radio-controlled drones to surreptitiously deliver contraband to prisons. One-hundred thirty such events are known to have taken place at Federal prisons during 2015-2019, but the number is acknowledged to be an undercount. Small drones may be visually undetectable unless at very low altitude, and special “acoustic, radar, and electro-optical systems” are required for their detection and successful interception.

6/8/23  A “surge” in carjackings and robberies has led D.C. authorities to propose distributing 5,000 dash cameras to ride-hailing and food delivery drivers. Video footage would not be routinely transmitted to police but made available should a crime occur. That approach is currently used by a D.C. program that distributed 26,000 security cameras to private residences. It reportedly led to seven arrests last year, including three for murder. But civil libertarians are voicing strong objections to the new plan.

5/31/23  In 2014 Illinois generally barred the police use of drones (click here for the law). Eight years later came the July 4th. 2022 massacre in Highland Park. A bill now sits on the Governor’s desk that amends the law to permit the use of drones to monitor special events, help in search and rescue, and aid victims or identify suspects when responding to dispatched calls for service (click here for the bill). Note: Gov. Pritzker signed the bill on June 16.

5/24/23  In a long-delayed decision, the Los Angeles City Council voted 8-4 to approve the donation of a “robot dog” for use by LAPD SWAT officers in high-risk situations. But opposition continues. According to the “Stop LAPD Spying Coalition”, its acceptance augurs an era where such devices will be “walking all over the place.” Others fear that the gadget will be used “to harm and spy on Black and brown communities.” Facing similar concerns, NYPD recently gave its version back.

5/17/23  A $10 million reward has been offered for tips that lead to the capture and conviction of Mikhail Pavlovich Matveev. A Russian national, Matveev has been Federally indicted for staging thousands of  ransomware attacks against private and public entities “around the world”, including police in D.C. and New Jersey. On threat of publicly posting stolen data, his “LockBit,” “Babuk” and “Hive” ransomware variants have extorted payments of more than $200 million dollars.

5/8/23  In April an Eastern European hacking group mounted a ransomware attack against the San Bernardino County, Calif. Sheriff’s Dept. To regain prompt access to critical tools, including e-mail, patrol car computers and law enforcement databases, the county split the $1.1 million ransom payment with its insurer. While such payments are supposedly “exceedingly rare,” some agencies have been reportedly making them for years. Others have refused, but the costs of making unassisted repairs are enormous.

4/12/23  Brushing off civil libertarians who once led NYPD to discontinue use of a “creepy and dystopian” robotic dog, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former cop, welcomed NYPD’s “adoption” of two new “digidogs” as a “smart way” of using technology. “If you have a barricaded suspect, if you have someone that’s inside a building that is armed, instead of sending police in there, you send Digidog...”

4/1/23  Suburban Atlanta police pulled over Randal Reid. Not for a traffic violation but because the 29-year old Georgia resident was wanted in Louisiana for using stolen credit cards. It took Reid six days and “thousands of dollars” in lawyer fees to get out of jail. His image - wherever it was obtained - had been linked by Louisiana detectives to images of the wrongdoer using Clearview AI facial-imaging software. But the real Mr. Reid had a mole the actual thief didn’t, so they dismissed all charges.

3/24/23  An academic inquiry concluded that in two of three studies that compared jurisdictions with and without officer body cameras their use led to significantly fewer fatalities. It’s thought that this might be the result of officers and citizens modulating their behavior while being filmed. (One study showed no effects.) In all, NIJ assigned a “promising” rating. However, the authors cautioned that the positive results could have been produced by other changes in policy in agencies that adopted the cameras. (See 3/5/24 update)

3/8/23  Concerns that the technology would be used “to harm and spy on Black and brown communities” led the L.A. City Council to defer accepting a $280,000 donation from the L.A.P.D. Foundation to acquire a robotic dog. Police insisted the “animal” would only be used by SWAT, and then only to prevent injuries to officers and civilians, and both the Board of Police Commissioners and a council committee approved the move. But a hostile crowd convinced council members to wait sixty days to make a decision.

3/4/23  Privacy advocates and device makers such as Samsung and Apple are outraged, but police have been eagerly downloading an upgrade to a hacking tool that could promises to allow access to the supposedly most secure cellphones. Pasadena police detectives hope that Cellebrite’s new “Premium” software will finally let them break into a murder suspect’s phone and retrieve information that might link him to a 2015 homicide.

2/13/23  Since 2019 California law has required that police release videos of shootings or uses of force that could lead to serious bodily injury or death. Releases must usually be made within 45 days. Delays, redactions and blurring are allowed to avoid impeding investigations and to protect privacy. LAPD’s releases, for example, are delayed and highly edited. But Memphis’ prompt release of unedited footage of the killing of Tyre Nichols has led critics to question why LAPD doesn’t adopt similar practices.

1/3/23  More than a thousand police departments across the U.S. employ aerial drones. In Southern California they’re in use by LAPD, the Sheriff’s office and, most recently, Beverly Hills police. Drones are dispatched on priority calls and have proven useful in finding and keeping an “eye” on dangerous suspects. But a lot of skepticism has accompanied their deployment. Last year, a Baltimore Federal court ruled that a six-month attempt to “capture” everything that happened in the city was unconstitutional.

12/16/22  Yearly national crime data, drilled down to the local level, has long been released by the FBI’s UCR program in the Fall of the following year. But major cities including Los Angeles and New York bogged down as the the FBI transitioned to the more detailed NIBRS system. Its recent 2022 release for calendar year 2021 “lacks data from nearly 40% of police departments nationwide, including massive forces in cities such as New York and Los Angeles,” making it impossible to assess recent crime trends (see 10/6/22 update).

12/6/22  Apple markets the “Find My” app as useful for locating misplaced iPhones. So a Denver police detective used it to secure a search warrant for the residence where the software suggested a stolen truck and its contents, including guns and an iPhone, might be. And that’s now the basis of a lawsuit by an innocent homeowner who was roughly treated by a SWAT team that, in the end, found nothing. As it turns out, the location suggested by “Find My” encompassed a far larger swath than just her home.

12/3/22  TSA is testing facial recognition technology at major airports throughout the U.S. Travelers step up to cameras that compare actual facial features against their photo ID’s to insure “they’re not impostors.” But one can refuse, and agents will return to the old method - comparing with their eyes.

10/15/22  Thirty-three years after the murder of a septuagenarian Danby, Vermont couple, their now-79 year old ex-son-in-law has been jailed for the killing. Circumstances led police to suspect Michael Anthony Louise from nearly the start, but it took “modern DNA testing” to connect “a spot of blood” that had been found in his car to the victims.

10/6/22  Yesterday the FBI officially released 2021 crime data compiled from submissions by the nation’s law enforcement agencies to its NIBRS program, which supersedes the UCR. In addition to crime counts, NIBRS includes estimates for variables including victim and arrestee age, sex, and race. However, no crime data was submitted by some key cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City and D.C. (see 12/16/22 update)

10/1/22  Recently introduced into the House, a proposed bill would bar using using facial recognition technology (FRT) to compare bodycam and dashcam images with existing photos in Government databases. Comparisons could only be made to images from fixed surveillance cameras, and then only if a warrant has been issued for a crime of violence. According to its sponsor, Rep. Ted Lieu (D - CA), the move is necessary because FRT is highly likely to misidentify non-Whites and has been used to harass protesters and pursue persons for minor transgressions. Bill text

9/27/22  To prevent rogues from interfering with police activity, Chicago is joining a national move to encrypt officer radio transmissions. They will, however, remain available for public listening on an online platform after a thirty-minute delay. News organizations object. Ditto a police scholar, who worries that it “reduces the level of accountability that police departments will face.” But officials point to “disruptions,” such as took place in April, when scoundrels used prior recordings to call in fake emergencies.

9/22/22  San Francisco supervisors narrowly approved a test run of a program that would let police temporarily monitor, with permission, privately-held or community-based video surveillance cameras in emergencies, when conducting specific criminal investigations, or during major events. Civil libertarians opposed the measure, stating that necessary footage could always be requested after the fact.

9/13/22  According to a joint study by Axios and The Marshall Project, despite $160 million in Federal funding, “staffing shortages and technical issues” at police departments around the U.S. sabotaged the transition from the UCR to the NIBRS. While the UCR was turned off at the end of 2020, “nearly 40%” of agencies, including NYPD and LAPD, are yet to fire up the NIBRS and have not submitted data for 2021. As for 2022, the NIBRS first quarter report includes only 56 percent of agencies. For the foreseeable future, the FBI will estimate crime trends, but the reliability of this process is highly questionable.

9/2/22  “Fog Reveal,” a commercial application used by law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S., constantly tracks the physical location of cell phones and other portable electronic devices - thus, their users - using the unique I.D. number that advertisers assign to each gadget. While there is no published link between these numbers and personal identities, should a certain I.D. number become of interest, physical surveillance can ostensibly enable the identification of a gadget’s user. EFF story

8/15/22  To comply with State restrictions against disseminating criminal history and personal information, many California agencies, most recently the San Diego Sheriff, have encrypted all radio communications. That, some say, unduly interferes with the public’s right to know. California State Senate Bill 1000 would give agencies two years to develop a solution that would comply with privacy rules but restore citizens’ ability to monitor routine police radio traffic on a real-time basis. (See 11/20/23 update)

8/13/22  Although the FBI insists that “estimates will help fill in crime statistics gap,” its system for gathering crime data from local agencies, the UCR, is no longer. In 2021 it was replaced by the NIBRS, which seeks to gather far more detailed information. Unfortunately, more than a third of the nation’s 19,000 agencies” are yet to transition, so 2021 crime data will be for States only, and even these will be largely padded with “estimates.” Analysts fear it will take years to return to what once seemed normal.

7/22/22  California law provides for the commitment of persons adjudged to be “sexually violent predators” to a State hospital. In time they can petition for discharge, and when granted they are placed on conditional release for one year. They can thereafter petition for unconditional release. A new California law, passed across Party lines and endorsed by police, requires they wear a GPS tracking device while on conditional release. But civil liberties groups strongly opposed the measure. Bill

6/30/22  Hospitals routinely draw blood from newborns to check for disease. Some States, including Michigan, California, New York and Minnesota retained centralized samples for decades, where they are available for use in research. But the practice has drawn privacy objections, and Texas abandoned it after a lawsuit. Michigan has also been sued, and it’s agreed to destroy more than three million samples.

6/23/22  Technology enables police to collect, store and analyze images and data gathered from citizens as they go about their everyday lives. While some of these efforts are well accepted, others entail “risks to privacy, freedom of speech, racial justice, and much more.” A new article in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal suggests a “soft law” approach that would require police technological initiatives to be reviewed and certified by a specially-constituted independent body before they are deployed.

5/10/22  Settling a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and privacy advocates that accused it of selling photos of persons without their consent, Clearview AI agreed to completely stop offering its products to the private sector. It also agreed to withhold its services from all agencies in the State of Illinois for five years.

5/6/22  A major editorial in the Washington Post warns about plans by Clearview AI, whose trove of “more than 3 billion photos” collected online is used by thousands of law enforcement agencies to help identify suspects of crime. Clearview reportedly aims to offer its services to the private sector for uses including physical security, job applicant screening, and even online dating. While that would present substantial privacy and civil liberties concerns, no Federal law presently regulates facial recognition.

5/2/22  San Francisco police connected a woman to a property crime using DNA that was collected when she was the victim of a sexual assault. Prosecutors dismissed the charges, and a California bill was introduced to ban the use of victim DNA in unrelated cases. That prohibition already applies to the FBI’s CODIS, and it seems that most local agencies avoid using victim DNA for extraneous purposes. A Federal law to that end is now being drafted.

4/27/22  Southwest of Chicago lies the village of Crestwood, pop. about 10,000. In 2016 the village contracted with SafeSpeed to install red-light cameras at various intersections. They did, and the program quickly expanded. Ticket revenues soared for the village and the firm. And apparently for Crestwood’s former Mayor, Louis Presta, who just got a year in Federal prison for accepting bribes from SafeSpeed. A current civil suit questions how many of the tickets were actually valid to begin with.

4/25/22  Beverly Hills has an extensive network of cameras - about 2,000 - that cover its shopping and entertainment districts. There are also intersection cameras to catch red-light scofflaws and license-plate readers that help police find wanted vehicles. More of each are on the way. Its objective? “Ubiquitous coverage,” said a city official. While civil libertarians are unhappy, police see cameras as a vital tool to discourage robberies and solve violent crimes, such as the recent murder of a noted philantrophist.

4/15/22  Screening towers manufactured by Evolv that use sensors and AI to detect guns, knives and other weapons on pedestrians who pass through the devices are in use at many venues, including New York City’s Lincoln Center. They’re now being considered for the subways. But cost is a factor. As, apparently, are privacy concerns.

3/26/22  Concerns that police might misuse the information to target Black residents led the Village of Oak Park, a prosperous Chicago suburb of about 50,000, to reject a police proposal to install license-plate cameras. Increased crime and gunplay led some residents to ask for more police protection. But a trustee complained that “If a car’s license plate alerts the police in error, and the police stop that car, what will the police response be if the car is full of young Black men wearing hoodies? These could be my son and his buddies, it could be any number of great kids in Oak Park.”

3/22/22  “Geofence” search warrants that order Google to identify active cellphones in a certain geographical area have been increasingly used by police to look for and identify robbers, killers and even participants in the Capitol assault. But in Virginia, both a State and a Federal judge have ruled that such requests, which Google began encountering in 2016, can be overbroad and may lack the “particularized probable cause” that warrants require. A bill to ban such warrants has been introduced in New York. For the detailed views of a legal scholar who supports “geofence” warrants, click here (See 12/22/23 update).

3/10/22  In a notorious March 2021 incident, a shot-spotter alert set the stage for the foot pursuit that led a Chicago police officer to fatally shoot Adam Toledo. But nearly one year earlier, Chicago police used the technology’s asserted ability to accurately place gunfire to dispute a claim by Michael Williams, 65, that his passenger, Safarian Herring, 25, was killed in a drive-by. Instead, they arrested Williams, who as a young man served time for attempted murder. He would would spend a year in jail before questions about the technology’s accuracy led a judge to dismiss the case. Herring’s murder remains unsolved. And while shot-spotter is being used throughout the U.S., its accuracy and usefulness remain in question.

2/17/22  San Francisco D.A. Chesa Boudin slammed SFPD for using DNA profiles of bodily fluids voluntarily contributed by victims of sexual assault to help identify the perpetrators of ordinary crimes. Doing so, which he called unethical and, search-and-seizure wise, illegal, reportedly led police to arrest a sex-crime victim for felony theft.

2/14/22  America’s fentanyl epidemic is fed by stealthy shipments of the lethal opioid that are concealed within otherwise conventional truck cargo that passes through ports of entry at the Mexican border. To combat the surge, agents use powerful X-ray scanners that furnish 3-D images of vehicle contents. While that’s a time-consuming process that requires operators to leave their cabs, intelligence-based software (CertScan) helps agents decide which trucks pose the most risk. New scanners are also being deployed that adjust signal strength and allow drivers to remain behind the wheel.

2/8/22  After a “firestorm of criticism” from privacy advocates the IRS dropped plans to require that taxpayers who wish to probe their site and access personal tax files submit a facial video to “Id.me” that would be used to authenticate future log-ins. But objections over privacy - “Id.me” is a private firm - the need for special tools, and facial recognition’s inaccuracies, especially for persons of color, sunk the plan. Instead, the IRS is being urged to use the Government’s existing “Login.gov” portal.

1/19/22  In February 2020 the California Dept. of Justice informed police agencies that to comply with FBI rules, “the transmission of criminal justice information” such as criminal records “shall be encrypted.” (Click here and go to pg. 33.) To comply, agencies began requiring that dispatchers convey such information by means other than open radio channels. But some departments, including the San Diego County Sheriff, are now encrypting all voice transmissions. That’s stirred concern by the media and others that the “transparency and accountability” afforded by listening in to police radio calls will be lost.

1/17/22  Sometimes DNA has degraded, or there isn’t enough. That’s where proteins, which are hardier souls, might be able to step in. Their genetic variation comes in the form of “single amino acid polymorphisms,” which lend themselves to comparisons between known and questioned biological material. Would that work for crimes? That’s what NIJ-funded researchers are seeking to confirm.

12/9/21  A surge in violent crime has led residents and retailers in a prosperous Los Angeles shopping district to come together in an effort to install license plate readers at homes and businesses. To allay privacy concerns, cameras will be aimed at traffic, images will only be retained for thirty days, and facial recognition won’t be used. Meanwhile, Elmwood Park, Illinois is offering to reimburse residents and businesses half the cost of mounting external security cameras if they join a program to provide police with video footage should a crime occur nearby. Users will keep the footage unless it’s used.

10/23/21  Homeowners associations across the U.S. have installed license plate scanners that capture the images and record the license plate numbers of vehicles entering their neighborhoods. Residents review the photos and share information with police to determine if unknown vehicles may be wanted. Some citizens object to the practice as needlessly intrusive, but others, along with Flock, the firm that installs and maintains the devices, insists that the scanners perform a crucial public service.

8/28/21  It’s not just Chicago’s neighborhoods. Its expressways have been increasingly beset by car-to-car gunfire, leaving innocents wounded and dead. There have been 159 such attacks so far this year. There were 128 in 2020, 52 in 2019 and 43 in 2018. This “extension of the gun violence that has ravaged the city’s disinvested South and West sides” is being addressed with a $12.5 million program to install license plate readers. Police hope that will improve the solution rates, which are reportedly poor.

8/26/21  A GAO FY 2020 survey of the use of facial recognition technology by 24 Federal agencies  revealed that sixteen use it for internal digital security, five for access control, and six for generating leads in criminal investigations. Ten agencies said they were expanding its use. For the full report click here. This news brought on a major piece in the Washington Post, which warned that the technology’s frailties, such as its inaccuracy in identifying Black persons, and its potential for invasion of privacy and other misuse has led “three States...and more than a dozen cities” to ban or restrict its use by police.

8/12/21  Apple announced it will soon begin automatically analyzing images uploaded by users to their iCloud accounts to determine if they match known images of child sexual abuse. Positive hits will be manually reviewed, and if confirmed the account will be locked and its user will be reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Apple’s plan, which bypasses encryption, has raised deep concerns from privacy advocates. It was also blasted by an editorial in the Los Angeles Times.

7/1/21  A new Maine law prohibits the use of facial recognition technology except when there is probable cause to believe than an imaged person “committed a serious crime.” Police may then request a comparison to FBI and motor vehicle databases. Matches do not by themselves permit making an arrest. Requests “will be tracked” and individuals who feel their rights were violated may sue. Meanwhile Southern California police departments are being criticized for posting images of wanted persons on Facebook and Instagram. While these have led to arrests, many posts are for minor crimes and remain online even after suspects have been arrested or cleared, damaging their privacy and future prospects.

6/30/21  Mounted on poles and on police cars, license plate cameras record the license plate number of passing vehicles and instantly compare them to national, state and local lists of vehicles that are stolen, were reportedly involved in a crime, or are being driven by wanted persons. That’s led to many arrests.   It’s also led to concerns that information collected by these systems can be resold or misused.

6/16/21  In a major policy address, A.G. Merrick Garland identified “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, and militia violent extremists” as America’s major domestic terrorism threats. Their access to social media, encrypted communications and firearms poses significant challenges. But DOJ’s enforcement focus will remain on violence, not ideology. “In America, espousing a hateful ideology is not unlawful. We do not investigate individuals for their First Amendment-protected activities.”

6/4/21  How best to check the identities of the “tens of thousands” of asylum-seekers awaiting entry to the U.S.? As part of the solution, DHS has implemented a facial-recognition app. that allows CBP to compare images of would-be entrants to persons already in its database and confirm whether they have officially applied or are part of the subset who may enter despite the COVID-19 policy that’s kept them out. But civil libertarians worry about the app’s security and its potential for error and misuse.

6/3/21  After its use to identify and arrest a protester, the D.C. Council of Governments halted the use of NCRFRILS, a facial-recognition system used by D.C.-area law enforcement agencies. Police argued that the system had helped solve robberies and other crimes, but civil libertarians cited its potential to wrongly identify women and minorities. In Virginia, police use of Clearview AI spurred a new State law that requires pre-approval before any facial recognition system can be used in the future.

5/19/21  Fearing that use of its facial recognition software, Rekognition, had a potentially chilling effect on public discourse, unfairly affected minorities, and could lead to wrongful convictions, Amazon suspended its use by law enforcement agencies last year. Amazon said it would await the passage of legislation to regulate the use of this tool. It’s now extended the prohibition indefinitely.

3/1/21  Fears of bias against non-Whites has led to bans against police use of facial recognition technology in cities including Oakland, Portland, San Francisco and Minneapolis. However, its many successful outcomes led Massachusetts to include a provision in a police reform bill that requires police to seek court orders to perform facial recognition searches except in emergencies.

2/27/21  Privacy advocates are criticizing ICE for subscribing to the CLEAR commercial database which compiles “millions” of telephone, electricity and other utility subscriber records. ICE investigators use this information to help identify and track down immigration law violators.

12/8/20  Authorities identified “Golden State Killer” Joseph De Angelo by uploading his profile to the MyHeritage consumer DNA database, which produced a match to a close relative. But MyHeritage, whose “terms of service” cautioned that it responded to “official inquiries,” wasn’t informed that police were behind the search.

11/18/20  LAPD has officially prohibited the use of any facial recognition database for generating investigative leads other than Los Angeles County’s “Regional Identification System” system. This move follows on a Buzzfeed news article that reported LAPD detectives were frequently turning to a commercial system, Clearview AI, which “scrapes” images from the Internet, including social media. Civil liberties advocates have condemned its use because of concerns about privacy and accuracy.

10/13/20  DOJ issued a stern warning about civilian use of drones, calling them “an amazing technology that offer great commercial promise, but they also present a serious challenge to ensuring public safety.” Drone operators have been prosecuted for, among other things, intruding into restricted airspace, flying over civil disturbances, dropping drugs into a prison, and dropping explosives as an act of terrorism.

In 2019 the FBI received over 450,000 reports of cybercrime, with losses totaling over $3.5 billion. Among the most reported scams were phishing (ruse that gets personal info.), non-payment/non-delivery, extortion, personal data theft, business e-mail compromise, confidence fraud romance, and identity theft. Click here for the FBI 2019 Internet Crime Report.

10/12/20  Officials in the U.S., Great Britain, Australia, India and Japan issued a joint statement calling for regulations to allow governments to access end-to-end encrypted communications when there is evidence of “child sexual exploitation and abuse, violent crime, terrorist propaganda and attack planning.” Technology providers are urged to build in means of access and to consider user safety when designing their products.

9/22/20  Los Angeles police regularly turn to a regional facial recognition database maintained by the county sheriff’s department to develop leads on suspects of crime. In a recent success officers arrested a man suspected of sexually assaulting children. Although police say they are aware of the software’s limitations, the ACLU disparaged its use last year with a test that identified one in five lawmakers as a criminal. Its purpose was to support a proposed State law that would ban its use on body cameras.

9/18/20  Remarks delivered by DOJ to State attorney generals emphasize that in today’s online world  it is vital that law enforcement agencies be given lawful access to encrypted communications. As one example the agency offered the crisis of child exploitation, which is facilitated by the ready availability of locked and encrypted cell phones that prevent access even with a search warrant.

9/16/20  An elaborate statement issued by the Department of Justice emphasized the usefulness of facial recognition technology in the fight against crime. DOJ pledged to use the technology, and assure that partner agencies do so, in a manner that “minimizes inaccuracy and unfair biases” and respects the interests of liberty and privacy.

8/13/20  Clearview A.I. has assembled a database of “billions” of facial images from the Internet, including from popular services such as Instagram. It uses these to compare against facial images furnished by police to help them identify and track down persons suspected of crime. Several state attorney generals are suing Clearview for violating privacy laws. But the company claims that its activities are protected under the First Amendment.

7/3/20  Police in California and four other states are involved in an FBI test of Rapid DNA for booking arrestees. In Orange County, the D.A.’s office has used it for five years, building a database of profiles from misdemeanants as part of their plea bargains. But Rapid DNA profiles remain insufficiently trustworthy for inclusion into CODIS. Mixed samples, in particular, still produce inconsistent results.

6/26/20  Santa Cruz, Calif., an early adapter of Predictive Policing, has banned it because it biases police attention towards areas populated by persons of color. Its use was suspended by a new police chief in 2017 because doing “purely enforcement” caused inevitable problems with the community. Santa Cruz also banned facial recognition software because of its racially-biased inaccuracies.

6/25/20 Detroit police arrested a black man in a store theft. Software tentatively matched a still image taken from a surveillance video to his photo in the state’s driver license database. Detectives included this image in a six-pack and showed it to the store’s security contractor, who wasn’t present during the theft. She identified him, and police used that alone to obtain a warrant. But the man was innocent.

6/24/20 A new Senate bill, “The Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act,” would require that manufacturers and providers of communication services help law enforcement agencies access encrypted devices and decode encrypted messages if ordered by a court based on probable cause.

4/11/20 Objections by civil rights activists led a Baltimore judge to put the brakes on a test program to have small planes shoot aerial footage of the city for 40 hours per week. According to police, the results would only be used to help solve violent crimes, of which the city has in abundance.

3/6/20 DOJ announced that ICE will soon begin routinely collecting DNA from “certain” persons who are detained for illegal entry. As is the case for ordinary arrestees, these samples will be included in the FBI’s national CODIS database. Officials are preparing a rule that will identify exactly whom among the scores of illegal migrants the new procedure will affect.

2/10/20 Companies aggressively marketed facial recognition, artificial intelligence and other technologies to police at the annual European Police Congress, held in Berlin..

2/10/20 Drawn from social media and other publicly-available sources, Clearview’s vast image database is helping participating police agencies identify victims of child abuse depicted on offender videos and other media. While the approach has met with success, privacy advocates fear its misuse.

1/25/20 London police announced that video cameras using real-time facial recognition technology will be deployed around the city to help locate suspects of serious crimes as they walk the streets. Meanwhile, concerns about privacy have led New Jersey’s attorney general to bar local prosecutors and police from using Clearview.

1/24/20 In a letter accusing the A.I. provider of violating Twitter’s terms of service, the social media website demanded that Clearview stop using anything on its platform and purge its files (see 1/18/20 update)

1/18/20 Hundreds of U.S. law enforcement agencies have subscribed to Clearview, a year-old service provider that uses proprietary A.I. technology to compare suspect photos against a rapidly-growing database populated with millions of images drawn from websites including Facebook and YouTube. Its first successful application for police, in February, took twenty minutes to match the face of an unidentified shooter, captured on a bystander’s cell-phone video, to his image on social media.

1/8/20 Saudi military student Mohammed Alshamrania, who shot and killed three and wounded eight at a Florida naval base December 6, had two Apple iPhones. The FBI secured warrants to search the phones but found that both are password-protected. So it’s reached out to Apple. But Apple’s long insisted it can’t access locked phones, and has so far refused to build in a “back door.”

12/12/19 Democratic and Republican lawmakers joined with Attorney General William Barr and British and Australian officials to demand that Internet portals build in “backdoors” that allow law enforcement agencies to intercept encrypted communications. But Facebook, which is planning end-to-end encryption, complained that doing so would make its system vulnerable and be “a gift to criminals, hackers and repressive regimes.”

11/15/19 A proposed Federal law would require Federal agents to get a warrant to use facial technology recognition to track a suspect for more than three days. It would not limit its typical current use, which is to make matches after-the-fact. Civil libertarians are demanding that this latter practice, which is now commonplace, face similar oversight.

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