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COLUMBUS — Three months ago, a system quietly went on line applying a facial recognition program to a newly created database of Ohioans’ driver’s license photos to help identify criminals.
In retrospect, Attorney General Mike DeWine said his office should have gone public with the fact that his Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification had thrown the switch to take the system live, but today he steadfastly defended the program as legal, safe, and necessary.
“I never thought there would be a big concern about it simply because over half of the states do it,” Mr. DeWine said. “It’s a natural extension of what law enforcement has done in the past. There are no new pictures that are being created to put in this database. Law enforcement has historically, for decades, had access to the BMV records.”
He characterized the program as a technological advancement of law enforcement’s existing authority. Being able to digitally compare Bureau of Motor Vehicle photos to images captured by security cameras dramatically speeds up the process of identifying suspects, he said.
“You’re going to save lives,” Mr. DeWine said. “You’re going to solve crimes…For us not to do this would be a dereliction of our duty to the people of the state of Ohio to protect them.”
The revelations come as Americans are already questioning the extent of databases created by the National Security Agency of America’s phone and on-line activities.
Mr. DeWine said he takes responsibility for waiting nearly three months to tell Ohioans about the new facial recognition program.
“I understand the concerns,” he said. “I get it.”
Despite his defense of the program, the Republican attorney general announced today the creation of a task force consisting of judges, defense attorneys, and law enforcement officials to develop a set of protocols to govern the operation of the program. He expects its findings back within 60 days.
Mr. DeWine said the program is an extension of existing law. No program-specific vote of the General Assembly was necessary.
Earlier this year, lawmakers considered mandating the installation of facial recognition cameras at casino cash counters and automatic redemption machines as part of the new state budget. But it ultimately decided not to do so.
“It is highly irresponsible for the attorney general of Ohio to launch something this expansive and this intrusive into the lives of law-abiding citizens without ensuring the proper protocols were already in place to protect our privacy,” said David Pepper, a former Hamilton County commissioner who is the sole announced Democratic candidate for Mr. DeWine’s job in 2014.
“To have kept this a secret for this long only makes it worse,” he said.
The program had been under discussion and under development since before Mr. DeWine took office. It went on line on June 6. Since then, it has been used by law enforcement 2,677 times.
He cited examples of the program being used successfully, the tracking down of parents after an abandoned baby stroller with bloody wipes in it was discovered and assistance for Indiana in discovering the true identity of someone with multiple driver’s licenses under different names.
But Mr. DeWine said he knew of no criminal prosecutions initiated yet because of the program. He also said that he doesn’t believe that any prosecutions begun before formal safety protocols are initiated could be endangered if those protocols call for something not being done now.