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Miami-Dade Mugshots Could Soon Be Added To One Of The Largest Facial Recognition Databases In U.S.

teguhjatipras via Creative Commons License
The largest police department in Florida could soon share its mugshot data with a large facial recognition database

The Miami-Dade Police Department is asking for access to a controversial facial recognition database that bills itself as the largest of such indexes in the nation.

The agreement would share all of Miami-Dade Police Department’s mugshot data with a statewide facial recognition system, enabling other local, state and federal agencies to access it.

In a planned meeting next Wednesday, the Miami-Dade Public Safety and Rehabilitation Committee plans to take up a resolution allowing the Miami-Dade Police Department to access the Face Analysis Comparison and Examination System, or FACES, which is run by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. The resolution was drafted by the police department and was put on the agenda by Commissioner Joe Martinez, the chairman of the committee.

“[Miami-Dade Police Department] grants [Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office] and all participating federal, state and local agencies access to their existing mugshot images enrolled in the facial recognition system,” reads the proposed Memorandum of Understanding between the two agencies.

The facial recognition system already has over 240 participating federal, state, and local agencies, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

The statewide database pulls in over 33 million photos gleaned from driver’s license photos and photos shared by law enforcement.

Yet, if the Miami-Dade Police Department enrolled in the program, it would be a major boost for the statewide system. The Miami-Dade Police Department is the largest police agency in the state of Florida, with more officers than even the statewide police agencies.

“The FACES software is beneficial to detectives within the MDPD as it can be used to compile facial recognition data on their subjects and help identify possible matches,” reads a letter from Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’ office included in the meeting materials. “The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office maintains the largest collaborative open model face recognition system in the United States.”

The letter from Gimenez urges the committee and later, the full county commission, to grant police access to the database. The agreement would only go into effect if a majority of the full commission votes for it.

A request for comment from the Miami-Dade Police Department was not immediately returned.

The City of Miami Beach had a similar item on its agenda in July. The item was pulled from the agenda and was not voted on.

The FACES database was created by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in 2001, and has drawn controversy for how it has been used in past cases.

For instance, a Jacksonville man was arrested for selling crack in 2015, after undercover officers bought $50 of crack from a black man in the street. The officers took a blurred nighttime photo of the man and ran it through the FACES database. The database spit out several potential matches, but one man, Willie Lynch, was later arrested for the crime. A state appellate court earlier this year ruled that Lynch had no right to review the photos of other suspects that were also matched by the search.

This case in particular drew alarm from privacy rights groups about how the FACES system operates, and how prosecutors use it.

“FACES is poorly regulated and shrouded in secrecy,” wrote attorneys with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group, in a blog post after the appellate court decision. “That he was identified by a facial recognition algorithm wasn’t known by Lynch until just days before his final pretrial hearing, although prosecutors had known for months. Prior to that, prosecutors had never disclosed information about the algorithm to Lynch, including that it produced other possible matches. Neither the crime analyst who operated the system or the detective who accepted the analyst’s conclusion that Lynch’s face was a match knew how the algorithm functioned. The analyst said the first-listed photo in the search results is not necessarily the best match—it could be one further down the list.”

A 2016 study from the Georgetown Law Center of Privacy and Technology found that FACES “runs 8,000 monthly searches on the faces of seven million Florida drivers—without requiring that officers have even a reasonable suspicion before running a search.” It also said the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office database appears to be the “most frequently used system in the country.” 

Comparatively, the FBI’s federal facial recognition database only ran an average of 4,055 searches per month, according to the report.

In the study, PInellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that FACES does not get audited.

The proposed agreement with the Miami-Dade Police Department specifies that the database can be used for “criminal justice purposes only and not for public use and dissemination.” If the FACES database is used for any other purpose, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office reserves the right to terminate the agreement.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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