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COLUMBUS — Attorney General Mike DeWine on Monday said, in hindsight, he should have told Ohioans nearly three months ago that a new system had gone online subjecting their driver’s license photos to a facial-recognition program to help identify criminals.
But 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,” the Republican attorney general 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.”
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 American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, however, called the program premature and ripe for potential abuse.
“The time for press conferences and advisory boards was months ago,” Associate Director Gary Daniels said. “This system needs to be shut down until there are meaningful, documented rules in place to keep this information secure, protect the privacy of innocent people, and prevent government abuse of this new tool.”
The revelations came as Americans already question the reach of National Security Agency databases containing Americans’ phone and Internet activities.
“Without specific limits on what government can do with this technology, its use will inevitably and eventually spread to Ohioans who are not criminal suspects,” Mr. Daniels said. “This is not speculation. It is a foregone conclusion when government thinks of law enforcement first and its citizens’ right to privacy last.”
Mr. DeWine said he takes responsibility for waiting nearly three months to go public about the facial-recognition program.
“I understand the concerns,” he said. “I get it.”
He announced the creation of a task force consisting of judges, defense attorneys, and law enforcement officials to develop protocols to govern the program. He expects its findings back within 60 days.
He held his news conference after the Cincinnati Enquirer revealed the program over the weekend.
David Pepper, the former Hamilton County commissioner and sole announced Democratic candidate for Mr. DeWine’s job in 2014, said he also may pursued such a program, but only after privacy protocols were in place.
“He got the order in reverse,” he said. “He should have been very transparent from the beginning. You should only launch it once you have in place a clear understanding of the protocol to ensure privacy. … The program may make sense for certain purposes, but the way it was rolled out was deeply flawed.”
The close-up, straight-ahead facial images captured on driver’s licenses are tailor-made for law enforcement to use for comparison purposes with other images captured of suspects on security cameras and cell phones.
Facial-recognition software digitally compares points on a face with the BMV photos in the database in hopes of finding a match. In addition to comparisons to surveillance footage, the program can be used for such things as identifying bodies.
Mr. DeWine noted it’s not as precise as DNA or fingerprint comparisons, but previously law enforcement needed additional evidence, such as a description of a car, to refine its search within the BMV database.
“It literally narrows it for you,” he said.
Mr. DeWine said no approval of the General Assembly was necessary. Earlier this year as part of budget debate, lawmakers considered mandating the installation of facial-recognition cameras at casino cash counters and automatic redemption machines to compile a database of the faces of casino patrons. Ultimately, it decided not to do so.
Seth Powless, an information technology professor at the University of Toledo’s College of Business, sees the program as technological advancement with few privacy concerns.
“There is a risk of false positives, but it’s very negligible,” he said. “It’s another tool in terms of prosecution. It’s a lot harder for someone to deny they were there and involved, and it doesn’t require any special cameras.”
The program had been under discussion and under development under Mr. DeWine’s Democratic predecessor, Richard Cordray. But Mr. DeWine was excited about its prospects. It went live June 6 and has been used by law enforcement 2,677 times.
He cited the example of the program being used successfully to track down the suburban Cleveland parents of a baby after an abandoned stroller with bloody wipes and a family photo were discovered. The baby was fine.
Ohio also assisted Indiana in discovering the true identity of someone with multiple driver’s licenses under different names.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.